Like it or not, the idea of an in-out referendum will play a big part in the Britain's forthcoming general election. Britons might tell pollsters they care little about the topic, but Europe is woven into so many issues that it will be up there in the headlines day after day. Yet the question of Britain's E.U. membership defies simple answers.
Supporters of a referendum sense an unprecedented opportunity. All of the main U.K. parties are committed - in varying ways - to holding an in-out referendum. The widely expected election outcome of a hung parliament also offers the prospect of one happening. Either a coalition deal or agreement between several parties could push one through. Or, should there be a minority government, a backbench referendum bill - supported by backbenchers from all sides - stands a chance of becoming law.
It is not just Eurosceptics pushing for a vote. As pro-European Timothy Garton-Ash has argued: 'Bring it on, for all our sakes'. A British public tired of listening to this debate may be minded to agree. The hope, for campaigners on all sides, is that a vote to stay or leave can be cathartic, ridding Britain of a debate that has poisoned politics for too long.
Those of us who support a referendum should be realistic about what we can expect of it. While nobody expects a vote to be a magic wand, we need to appreciate that referendums rarely settle issues, especially on topics as multifaceted as Europe. To be or not to be in Europe: is that the question? In short: no. Britain's European debate is all too often about issues, many of them domestic, that will be changed - some potentially inflamed - by a referendum, not settled.
If a referendum does happen it's unlikely to be out of a principled desire to run a neutral constitutional procedure that accurately captures public opinion. All referendums are political tools. In the U.K. they are tools used by the government of the day to manage party or coalition tensions. While a referendum triggered just by a backbench vote is a possibility, it is more likely to happen with the support of the leadership of a Conservative minority government seeking ways to compensate its backbenchers for failing to win a majority.
So if the politics looks set to remain difficult, what chance is there that the British people will come to terms with the issue? The British people are more than capable of grappling with the complexities of the issues involved. But as we saw in Scotland, even when there is a lively, exciting and democratically healthy debate, the referendum result leaves open many of the questions it was supposed to settle.
Experiences elsewhere in Europe point to the likelihood of continued difficulties for the U.K. Countries that hold regular referendums on Europe, Ireland and Denmark for example, appear to have more settled relationships with the E.U. This may be so, but the U.K. will need to hold more than one referendum to replicate their experiences. That both Ireland and Denmark have rejected E.U. treaties does not bode well for hopes the British can grow to love the E.U. by being consulted more often.
Euroscepticism itself is deeply enough embedded in British life that it's not clear any number of referendums could kill it off. A referendum will not change Britain's late and grudging membership of the E.U., feelings that joining was an abdication of a global role, or long-standing media and popular portrayals of Europe as a hostile 'other'.
Tensions over immigration, inequality, Britain's growing population, increasingly politicised identities - English, Scottish, Northerner, Londoner, Welsh - will not disappear from the debate about Britain's links to the EU. The continued decline of two-party politics and disenchantment with Westminster will continue to allow space for parties such as the U.K. Independence Party.
For Eurosceptics a vote to remain in the E.U. will therefore be a tactical and not strategic defeat. They will regroup as underlying domestic issues that drive the European debate refuel their support.
They will not have to wait long before they can resume their campaign. The vagueness of the EU's founding ideal of 'ever closer union' means the E.U. will continue to evolve. Further calls for referendums could easily emerge as the E.U. evolves and in turn changes Britain's relationship with it. Britain will find itself facing 'neverendums'.
Nor are Eurosceptics likely to face sustained opposition. Despite the noble efforts of some of those involved, pro-European campaigns in Britain have an abysmal record. Any victorious referendum campaign is likely to be a temporary coalition thrown together in haste. Any victorious message will focus on practicalities such as trade and jobs. That is all very worthy, but it plays down the political and security sides of the E.U., issues that cause deep unease.
Any campaign based on trade and jobs is also unlikely to prove as effective as it was in the past. The growing appeal of emerging markets, which also draw the attention of countries such as Germany, will add to questions about Britain's links to the E.U.
This might seem to point to an exit vote as the simplest option. That would be equally, perhaps even more deceptively wrong. Withdrawal would not be straightforward; it is unprecedented, with the legal side alone potentially being a Pandora's box. Whatever way Britain left the EU, the process could easily create acrimonious relations in both British politics and U.K.-E.U. relations.
Just as could happen with a vote to stay in, questions about what the British people were voting on - an unpopular government or leader rather than the issue of Europe - could hang over an out vote, especially if the majority is a slim one. The unity of the U.K. would be tested if areas such as Scotland or London voted to stay in. It is unclear what an out vote could mean for the Northern Ireland peace process.
With the EU set to remain Europe's predominant political, economic and legal organisation, it will still be regularly accused of interfering in British life and failing to respect Britain's sovereignty. Whether it is globalisation or Europeanisation, Britain will remain under pressure to be open to the whole world. Immigration, as it has long been in British history, will remain a deeply contentious issue.
It will be building a new external relationship with the EU that will more than likely create the deepest arguments and acrimony. Britain's debate on leaving the E.U. often forgets a basic fact of any relationship: it's not all about you. A relationship is two-way, even during or after a divorce. Britain cannot simply demand what is best for it and expect to get it all.
What new relationship Britain secures will be one that meets with the approval of the remaining 27 E.U. member states, European Parliament and potentially the European Court of Justice. Britain may find it has to swallow an unpopular deal offered by an E.U. changed by the withdrawal of one of its economically liberal minded and outward looking powers.
It might seem paradoxical then to end by arguing that this should not rule-out an in-out referendum. If a referendum mirrored the experience of Scotland's referendum debate then it could help Britain better tackle the poisonous debates that so often surround the European question.
Any such referendum would need to be embraced as an opportunity to debate what type of country we want Britain to be. Sadly, as things stand it seems inevitable both sides will ignore the wider complexity of the European question. They will fall into arguing narrow short-term points about trade and sovereignty.
Nor is it likely British politics will better manage the issue whatever the decision is. The poison will soon return, meaning the referendum will have been nothing more than a placebo.
This post is based on the article, 'To be or not to be in Europe: is that the question? Britain's European question and an in/out referendum' which appeared in the January 2015 issue of International Affairs, the Chatham House journal.