The British Prime Minister David Cameron has promised that he will reveal in a speech at the end of the month the details of where he wants to lead the UK to in its quest to find an acceptable relation with, or within, the EU. When he started hinting late last year at the possibility of a referendum on this, he unleashed a public debate both in the UK and abroad on the timing and of course on the exact question to be put before the voters.
In his hints, he refrained from any practical information. Yes, there was talk of giving the British people 'a say in the UK's role in Europe', but in his initial remarks he mentioned neither a referendum, nor specific timing.
Hundreds of articles have been written in the opinion pages of both broadsheet and tabloid in the UK and elsewhere on the subject. Some saw it as an attempt to keep his hopelessly divided Tory-Liberal Democrat coalition afloat by postponing a decision, whereas others presumed he hinted at a referendum to keep the staunch eurosceptic right-wing of his own Conservative party off his back by throwing them a line.
The rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (Ukip) in opinion polls distresses these Tory right-wingers enormously. And there were those that suggested that Cameron's initiative was primarily addressed at his European partners as a warning to not endanger the position of the City of London as Europe's main financial centre.
But, no matter what, all of these speculators were happily pre-empting what Cameron might actually have to offer. And the prime minister gladly collected all these assumptions, as they might help him to construct a case to be put to the people. A case that, at the outset, was, seemingly, far from clear, even to him. His first hints were merely tactical, just to test the water. And now with the avalanche of opinionated pieces in the media, Cameron has a clear view of the battlefield. And it would not be surprising at all if at times he thinks he might perhaps better not have hinted at anything at all.
For, as always, events are taking over.. Enough to keep the hyena's in his own party happy, without upsetting the Lid-Dems too much and keep those sordid Europeans on their toes. But, now the genie is out off the bottle, and slowly but steadily, Cameron is being pushed into speaking far more clearly on the subject than he ever intended.
And so he has already made clear that any referendum can only take place after the next general election, and will surely be part of his platform in those elections. This, of course, implies that a referendum of his choice will only take place if and when he wins these elections outright. And this from the man who did not win the last elections outright, the election he seemingly could not lose.
But also on the subject of the referendum, the question to be put to the people, Cameron may be in for a surprise. He would rather have this referendum conclude and rubber stamp the repatriation of powers from Brussels to London that he hopes to achieve in the context of European Treaty re-writing. 'Treaty-change' as it is called in the jargon, is supposedly needed to allow for the completion of the monetary union needed to keep the euro afloat. But the enthusiasm for such a lengthy and complicated process is rapidly waning in Europe. Even in those countries, like Germany, that advocated it strongly in the beginning.
It is not certain that any "treaty-change" negotiations will start any time soon, and even if they do, its conclusion lies in a distant future. So it is far from certain , even most unlikely, that any repatriation of powers can have been negotiated within the EU, and between Cameron and his European partners, any time in the next three years. Cameron does not really get much help from his European partners for this. As said, Germany – and certainly the Netherlands – are no longer advocating a speedy treaty change. And even European Council President Herman van Rompuy told the Guardian over the Christmas holidays that the UK could not cherry-pick from the EU what it liked. He also subtly made it known that the present treaties still have quite a lot of leeway to accommodate further integration in the Eurozone.
And as David Cameron is pressured to hold a referendum soon after the elections – say late 2015 – the only question to be put to the UK electorate will be: do you want to be in, or out of the EU? For someone who claims that he wants the UK to be within a renewed EU ("having a seat at the table") as David Cameron says he wants, this is not a very bright prospect.
Let's wait for the speech and see how Mr Cameron will shoot himself in the foot. At least the NHS also covers self-inflicted injuries.