So at last we know. The starter's gate opens in April and the finishing line will be crossed on 23 June. The great Europe referendum, the apogee of David Cameron's term as prime minister, is finally in the sporting calendar.
The government has produced its White Paper "The Best of both Worlds-Our Special Status in a reformed European Union" as an opening shot. It sets out the deals done earlier this month in relation to economic governance, competitiveness, sovereignty and welfare. Some of it is less than exciting. After all it is no big surprise to discover that we will be allowed to keep out of the euro. On the other hand it is reassuring to see some of the consequences of this written down, for example the exemption from Euro bail outs if the common currency goes pear shaped. Some of the welfare stuff is worth having too - such as the agreement that where we support the families of immigrants working in the UK, we only do so to the standards of the jurisdictions in which those families actually live.
A tightening here, a clarification there, the White Paper will be criticised as making little difference by some, while others will regard things like the statement that we are not committed to ever-closer union as important political markers. There is some truth in both views but at least Mr Cameron has enough to claim that his negotiations achieved something.
Whether that claim is true does not matter. The referendum will not be about the changes themselves but whether membership of the EU, on these slightly adjusted terms, is or is not to the advantage of the British people. It is not a simple decision because a voter, before he makes his decision, will need to look at three separate questions. They are:
a) whether the EU will succeed or fail;
b) whether if it succeeds we are better off within or outside it; and
c) whether if it fails we are better off within or outside it.
Then he needs to stick his conclusions together to decide what to do. If that is beginning to sound like an exercise in higher statistics, I am afraid that it only gets worse because there are any number of different degrees of success or failure. At one end of the spectrum is the collapse of the free market, the imposition of tariffs between the member states. Slightly less bad is the preservation of a tariff free area but loss of the free movement of people. Then there is the possibility of a successful Euro or an unsuccessful one, successful sanctions against Russia or unsuccessful sanctions, completion of the market in financial services or preservation of the status quo.
There are a lot of possibilities to play with and voters may need elaborate charts before the campaign is over, but for the moment let's keep it simple and look at the possibility of failure. Where would the UK want to be then? Let's not take failure as some dreadful cataclysmic event either, some event in which all the participants go up in smoke or fight a war but rather as a gradual disintegration: members disagree with each other, there are more and more opt outs and anti-European parties win majorities in an increasing number of jurisdictions. Gradually countries begin to leave the EU and its institutions and disciplines become gradually less and less effective.
What then? What happens next? Well, if the EU just gradually dissolved and disappeared it wouldn't matter very much whether we were in it or not because we would still end up in the same place. What is much more likely, however, is that a much smaller international grouping would emerge made up of countries whose economies and social policies were better aligned, perhaps a bloc of the Netherlands, France, Germany, and Belgium say. If that were to happen we would have a much better chance of helping to mould it into something we would actually like (internally liberal: formidable to out siders) than if we had always stood apart. To an extent then, membership of the EU may give us some sort of option as to whether or not we wish to participate in whatever follows it. If you believe that the EU in its present form will atrophy and die that could be a reason for remaining within it..
If the vote is to leave the EU, there will be two whirlpools of instability. First in EU politics where the fact that a country has left may lead others to follow. The negotiations for carrying through Brexit would not be pleasant. After all, the EU would not want it to be a painless process for fear that other countries would then follow our example. Then there would be instability in the UK where the consensus amongst establishment politicians would have been rejected by the electorate. Would Mr Cameron's government be able to continue? Almost certainly not. Elections would have to be held even though the normal five-year period had not expired. Who would benefit? Presumably the nation would expect tough anti-European politicians to lead the negotiation and they would be in a good position to take power.
If, then, you were an ambitious politician, perhaps a little outside the mainstream, you would be weighing up your options. Support the EU and, if the public decide to stay part of it, you will merely be one of the political establishment going forward. If the public votes for out, not so good but as most of the political establishment will be going the same way, probably scope for recovery. Support Brexit, on the other hand and it is more exciting. If the vote goes your way you will be one of the group eligible for high office. If the country decides to stay in, you are probably finished for the foreseeable future. What you have to do is to call this right but, to use Boris's phrase, the ball is much more likely to come loose at the back of the scrum if we break from Europe than if we do not..