Normalising the exit option

As part of my preparation for my stand-up routine later this month, I thought I’d watch David Cameron’s speech to his party conference yesterday. Sadly, Dave neither had any good lines I could nick, nor anything particularly outrageous that I could rail against, so in that sense it was a bit of a wash-out.

However, his passing remarks on the EU did catch my attention:

“And some people say a lot of things on Europe.

You’ll never be able to veto an EU treaty.

You’ll never cut the Budget.

And if you did these things –you’d have no allies in Europe.

Well we’ve proved them wrong.

I vetoed that treaty…

…I got Britain out of the EU bail-out scheme…

…and yes – I cut that budget.

And in doing all this, we haven’t lost respect – we’ve won allies to get powers back from Europe.

That is what we will do…

…and at the end of it – yes – we will give the British people their say in a referendum.

That is our pledge. It will be your choice: in or out.”

This was the entirety of what he had to say on the EU, from a speech of over an hour. I could go through, line by line, unpacking the underlying arguments, but it’s nothing that hasn’t already been said: Europe as ‘other’, a national perspective, flexible cooperation, etc. It is the last line that particularly stood out, mainly because it was so banal. A matter of profound constitutional significance – regardless of your views – cast out without further elaboration.

This can certainly be understood as part of the Tories’ policy during this conference of letting the sleeping dog of Europe lie, despite the best efforts of UKIP, but it also speaks to a more general shift. This morning, the director of Europol spoke on the Today programme about the risk of the UK withdrawing from the organisation, something that has been trailed since the summer. And we also have the running sore of the ECHR.

In short, the exit option has become a staple of British political debate: if we don’t get what we want, we’ll just up sticks and leave.

Such a view rests on the assumption that by cutting the UK off from its commitments, it will become free to achieve its full potential, a logic encapsulated in the notion of the ‘global race‘. Seen differently, it sounds like the teenager, rebelling against their family and setting out into the world. Of course, at some point they discover that the world is much like their family told them it would be.

At the moment, we find ourselves in a position where exit is thrown about with much abandon, where its sheer repetition makes it seem normal. Until such a point as the UK actually leaves an organisation, this looks likely to remain the case: in the absence of hard evidence one way or the other, it is hard for anyone to actually gauge the impact of an exit.

In that sense, one might see a value to eurosceptics of pushing for exit from a variety of bodies and not just the EU itself.  Leaving smaller and less influential organisations would be simpler, with fewer costs and more potential to claim a gain in some abstract notion of ‘sovereignty’ (no more foreign judges telling us what to do, etc.). It would then establish that exit is possible and beneficial, which could only lend weight to the bigger prize of withdrawal from the European Union.

The danger is that – to return to Cameron’s words – the UK will ‘lose respect’. HMG might have been able to tap into a sense of the need for EU reform with some other member states, but that is a very long way from a position of isolationism that this discourse of multiple exits seems to imply. A very fine line is being walked here, and it is not immediately evident how it can be maintained in the presence of such febrile words.