“What did he mean by that?” Metternich is reported to have said on hearing of the death of Talleyrand, Napoleon’s wily diplomat. The same question will be asked in the Chancelleries of Europe and elsewhere should Britain vote to leave the EU. But perhaps it is a more pertinent question to ask if Britain votes to remain, especially if the winning margin is narrow – as seems likely – and certainly less than the winning margin in 1975.
Perhaps a clue lies in the different groups of voters, set out here in descending order of Europhilia.
- Those who like the EU as it is and where it is going and would like Britain to be fully part of it. A relatively small group and not much heard from.
- Those who like the EU and want Britain to remain in, even without being part of the central core. They could be described as seeing Britain’s role as the grit in the EU oyster helping to produce a pearl.
- Those who think the economic value of the EU is of great value to Britain, that the other aspects of the EU are either an asset (security co-operation) or a price Britain has to pay and either discount the political aspects of the EU projet or think Britain has a sufficient opt-out.
- Those who do not much like the EU but like some of the economic aspects and, crucially, think that the costs of disentanglement are too great.
- Those who do not like the EU at all, would like to have a different relationship with it, are not impressed by Cameron’s renegotiation but are concerned about the consequences of exit and are not impressed by the Brexit campaign: either the people or the plans for life after the EU.
- Those who think that the EU is not working, whether economically, politically or in relation to immigration, and are prepared to take the risks of exit.
- Those who are fed up with the political elites and are taking this opportunity to express their dissatisfaction with them.
- Those who have never liked the EU.
There is of course much overlap between some of these groups, particularly 3, 4, 5 and 6, who probably form the majority of the electorate. On the arguments there is not, in truth,a huge amount of difference between these groups. But whether a voter falling in one of these groups decides to vote either Remain or Leave will have as much to do with emotion, their attitude to risk, age, family circumstance and the balance between head and heart as with any analysis of the arguments or great points of principle.
What is undeniable is that the majority of voters have no great love for the EU or for its political project. Even if Remain wins it is a fair assumption that the risks of exit will have played a significant and possibly the major part in making those voters vote Remain. No-one could sensibly argue that Britain will have voted for the EU positively and joyfully, because they like it. It will be the EU faut de mieux, the EU as the least worst option, Britain staying in the EU because no-one could – this time – sensibly articulate a realistic picture of Britain outside the EU and how to get from here or there.
So what will the EU make of Britain’s decision to Remain, if that is what it is? If the EU takes the de jure view, says that a Remain vote means a Yes to Europe, to whatever the EU says Europe means and that British scepticism has been routed, then trouble lies ahead. A sensible EU sensitive to the varied currents of British opinion would realise that many of those voting Remain are doing so in a grudging rather than in a full-hearted way, would understand that the EU has been put on probation, would seek not to inflame British opinion, would seek to recognise the fundamentally different approach Britain has to the EU project and would try to balance the interests of the Eurozone states with those outside it.
Will the EU be sensible? Past history is not encouraging. Nor are the recent statements by various EU worthies that a Britain outside the EU should be punished pour encourager les autres. And the Eurozone’s current woes are enough to be dealing with.
The winner in a democratic election always needs to remember that they have to rule for and over those who did not vote for them. They take that into account in how they govern. They realise that in the real world democracy is not a winner takes all game. The consent of the governed needs to be earned between votes not just at the moment of elections or referenda. Can the EU learn this lesson?
If they don’t they risk finding out that what the British meant when they voted Remain was not what the EU thought it meant.