Those who have been leading the battle against British integration into Europe portray themselves as the most patriotic of Britons -- in the mold of King Arthur's legendary knights -- fighting against the corruption and loss of sovereignty the EU is believed to entail. But despite the most valiant of efforts over the years, with unquestionably brilliant and committed champions like Margaret Thatcher, the slide toward greater integration has continued unabated.
According to the legend of King Arthur, he was the most unlikely of heroes, yet as a young boy he managed to effortlessly remove the sword from the stone -- something those known to have greater strength and ability failed to do -- and the idyllic age of Camelot began. Much to the surprise of Britain's euroskeptics, their unlikely hero, their Arthur, might well be Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Mr. Blair is probably just as surprised, and annoyed, to be in this situation. He supports European integration -- he wants the euro and the constitution -- and has tried to position Britain as a leader within Europe, or at least of "New Europe." Paradoxically it is the constitution -- an instrument designed to further integration -- that could end up having the opposite effect. If Britain and all other EU member states ratify the constitution, a new EU will be created and everyone will live happily ever after -- at least according to its proponents. If Britain, or any other country, says "no," it starts getting interesting. And Mr. Blair has decided to hold a referendum and leave this decision to the British public.
If Britain votes "no," one option is for Mr. Blair to try again. A "no," when not to the liking of the European elites, is usually understood as: "Try and try again until we get a yes." Voters in both Denmark and Ireland have rejected EU treaties in the past, leading to a second vote that duly produced the desired "yes."
This is improbable in Britain's case, however. If Mr. Blair loses the referendum -- having staked his reputation on a "yes" vote
-- it is probable he'll resign or be forced from office, and a new leader is unlikely to risk tripping up on the same stone. And even if Mr. Blair manages to retain his office, he will be severely weakened and unlikely to risk his position further by inviting a possible second defeat.
Of course, European elites could simply accept a "no" vote by Britain, allowing the whole constitutional project to collapse and deciding to live with the status quo for the time being. While this outcome might become more likely if other countries joined the U.K. in voting down the constitution -- Ireland, Spain, Portugal, Holland, Denmark, and the Czech Republic are all holding referendums before Britain -- few other countries are equally euroskeptical. French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder will do everything they can to prevent Britain or any other country from ruining their plans for an "ever-closer union."
As a unanimous "yes" from member states is needed for the constitution to become EU law, how would the Schroeder-Chirac axis circumvent a British "no"? An attempt to formally expel Britain is doubtful. She has many friends -- "New Europe" -- that value her as an important counterweight to the Franco-German bloc, and as a net contributor to the EU budget -- set to reach £6 billion ($11 billion) in 2006 -- is very much needed in the expanded EU of 25. Instead a deal might be made: In exchange for Britain withholding her "veto" over the constitution and allowing the French et al to press ahead with their "core Europe," Britain would be allowed to negotiate a special place for itself within the EU -- for example continued access to the single market and the free movement for its citizens across Europe -- while the others pursue greater integration.
What exactly will happen if Britain votes "no" is speculative.
What is certain is that the relationship between Britain and Europe would never again be the same. Whether Britain is kicked out, given special status, or the constitution is abandoned by all, Britain's European status will have been fundamentally changed. The British people would have sent a clear message of "no to more Europe," and no British politician would have the mandate to try and further European integration for a long time. The drawbridge would have been raised from across the English Channel.
If these are the possible consequences of holding a referendum, and as no British law requires one to be held, why did Mr. Blair decide to hold one? He decided for purely political reasons. If he had refused a referendum, the next general election would have been dominated by "Europe" instead of domestic issues, and the opposition parties would constantly ask the electorate: "How can you trust Labour when they don't trust you?" Answering that it's a decision for politicians and not the people would fall flat as other European countries would have already put the same proposition before their people. So Mr. Blair was left with little choice.
The current odds of Mr. Blair's winning the referendum are roughly the same as that of Mr. Chirac's nominating him for the Nobel Peace Prize for liberating Iraq. British euroskepticism was seen most recently in last month's Euro-elections, where the United Kingdom Independence Party, advocating withdrawal from Europe, won 17% of the vote. Likewise, opinion polls across the spectrum signal a clear defeat for the constitution.
Britain's notoriously euroskeptic tabloids will be waging an all-out war against the constitution. The most popular -- The Sun -- famously ran the headline "Up Yours, Delors" in 1990 in response to then-Commission President Jacques Delors' plan for a single market -- which the Sun felt was meddling too far in British affairs -- will once again be leading the charge. Expect an entertaining array of headlines in the coming months.
The actual debate will be a battle between two simple messages.
The "no" campaign will argue that ratifying the constitution surrenders British sovereignty, while the "yes" campaign will argue that no sovereignty is lost and those opposed really want Britain completely out of Europe. The "no's" will broadcast images of Churchill, Nelson and other heroes who have defended British independence from an evil menace loose on mainland Europe. Phrases from the constitution such as: EU law "shall have primacy over the law of member states," and that members are warned to "refrain from any action which is contrary to the interests of the Union," will be used as proof that sovereignty will indeed be lost. The "yes" camp will counter that Mr. Blair's sacred "red lines" were secured -- including the right of veto in foreign policy and taxation -- and will try and shift the debate to an "in-or-out" question.
Mr. Blair has set the referendum for 2006 to give himself the maximum amount of time to sway the public, and he kicked off the campaign immediately after returning from the constitution meeting in Brussels by promising to dispel the "myths" surrounding the constitution. The prime minister realizes the difficult position he has placed himself in, and will summon all his political skills and tricks to try and ensure he leads Britain into, not out of, Europe.
Whether he succeeds and remains one of Europe's leaders, or fails and inadvertently causes the complete reversal of Britain's role in Europe, he'll have his place in British legend for centuries to come.
Yet to be decided is whose hero, and whose villain, he'll be.