Cameron’s initial strategic mistake was the referendum pledge. It did not appease the Tory right (as originally envisaged). The rise of UKIP did not stop – on the contrary UKIP is alive and kicking (the plan of Cameron was to develop a credible response that attacks the raison d’être of UKIP) The rest of the EU increasingly perceives Cameron’s actions as a simple act of blackmailing. And if Cameron continues to negotiate like he did during the Spitzenkandidaten row – I am afraid that he will not get any concession in the coming months. And anyway Cameron’s idea of EU reform is simply non-existent (and only because one prominent UK based think tank writes about it doesn’t make it true)
And now another scenario appears increasingly likely: The in-out EU referendum may become a referendum on immigration. It must be Cameron’s nightmare scenario. There will be no new treaty, renegotiation will be a PR exercise and the issue of immigration could dominate the referendum campaign:
If there were to be a renegotiation, the two things they most want are “control of immigration” and “send less money”. If the EU remains in control of immigration, renegotiation would be seen as a failure and, having raised false hopes, would make people more likely to vote “out”. While the status quo in a referendum usually has a structural advantage, in an EU referendum this advantage could be lost as the “out” campaign could say “this is your chance to change immigration policy”.
After the Conservatives attacked UKIP by promising an EU referendum UKIP simply changed tactics and discovered the topic of “immigration”. It worked well over the past couple of months, so I wouldn’t be surprised if that issue would also be used in a referendum campaign.
And if that happens, all bets are off – and the UK could indeed sleepwalk out of the EU.