As the EU campaigns begin, we lack clarity from all sides

And they’re off! Cue years of leaflets in the letterbox, knocks on the door, and people approaching you on the streets. What do they want to talk about? They’ll be asking you how you’ll be voting in the upcoming referendum on the EU. After you give them the wrong answer, you’ll have to stand there whilst they explain to you why you’re wrong. It’s called politics.

Yes, this is the EU referendum, which will be happening before the end of 2017. Considering its a pretty big deal, you’d think we’d know the date of it by now. Alas, the whole of Westminster is working to make sure that we have as little time as possible to discuss it. The lack of a firm date has not held back the campaigns, which seem curiously premature. We don’t know what the Prime Minister is going to ask for because, well, he doesn’t seem to have asked anyone for anything yet because, urm, he doesn’t seem to know what to ask for. Perhaps it’s because he doesn’t actually think reform is needed. Or maybe he’s just doing it to appease his more Eurosceptic supporters – the Telegraph released a draft of what his demands are thought to be, and after bowing to pressure from the EU he will actually write down his demands so that they can be discussed. Yet he’s said he’ll reveal his demands in a few weeks. Why so long? Your guess is as good as mine. He’s had a long time to think about what he might demand of the EU – yet, if he picked up a pen to write what we wanted, I’m not sure he’d know what to put.

Perhaps we might learn something by looking at others who seem to be discussing the issue.

It’s not very clear who the two campaigns are. The “In” campaign is  a bit easier because there’s only one of them: Britain is stronger in Europe. But the “Out” side of the debate has no clear representative. There’s Vote Leave,  a cross party group who Douglas Carswell has gotten behind. Then there’s Leave.EU, who are fronted by Nigel Farage. Despite what must be some important differences, we’ve heard little about these groups. When we had the Scottish referendum, even in England we all knew it was either “Yes Scotland” or “Better Together”. But yet again we’re left in the dark. However, I suppose that it must be difficult for these groups anyway. They don’t know what Cameron is asking for, when he’ll ask for it, and they can’t even be entirely sure of how he’ll vote. They can’t knock on peoples’ doors and tell them exactly what it is they’re supporting. All they can do is repeat the rhetoric we’ve all heard before – “We need to control our own borders” or “We need to be in the common market for our businesses”. But does Cameron really have any power over these things? It’s unlikely he’ll be able to get any leeway on borders – Merkel is the only one who’s allowed to put them up, take them down, or ignore them as she pleases.

Either way, the campaigning has come all a bit too soon. Obviously the separation campaign needs to start as soon as possible, because they don’t know when a date will be announced so they need to be prepared. However, can either team be honest with the electorate yet? Probably not. Because they don’t know exactly what is going to be put before us. 

The problem is that Cameron probably didn’t think he was going to be in this situation five months ago, and he seems to be caught off guard. The night before the election, he mentioned that he’d packed up many of his belongings because “you have to be prepared for whatever outcome”. He put a referendum on the table thinking it might sway a few voters in Clacton or South Thanet, not considering that he might have to keep his word. He saw a future in which he’d go back into a coalition with a party and that would be the issue he’d give up on his side. So he wasn’t really prepared for his whistle-stop tour of European capitals where he had dinner with every single leader. What could he ask them for? Well, if he’s saying that he’ll announce his demands in a few weeks we can only assume that he didn’t know what he wanted back then, that he was testing the water. But it’s never a good tactic to ask them what they’d be willing to offer because in Cameron’s case, it didn’t look like he wanted anything.

There’s no clear situation assessment that can be given of the upcoming referendum. The EU doesn’t know what’s going to happen. The campaign groups don’t know. The voters don’t know. And it seems that even the Prime Minister doesn’t know, unless he’s simply playing the fool.

The campaigns have begun, but we are none the wiser as to when it will end, or what the ending will look like. If I had to put money on it, I’d say that we’re more likely to stay in. Most will adopt a “devil you know” stance, and in any case the whole of Westminster will be working towards this aim. Purdah may remain but they might find a way to get round it in some way. Nicola Sturgeon will find a way to claim that Scotland was ignored, Nigel Farage will resign…and then come back the following day, Cameron will claim to have overhauled the institution as it remains just as undemocratic as before, and Corbyn will still be arguing with his MPs about what stance they should take before telling his MPs they can have a free vote. Life will go on much as before, we’ll just have had two years of hell as the price, and another forty years of hell before we do it all again. The campaigning will be just as biased then as it will be this time round, and always has been.

PHOTO/ The Prime Minister’s Office