Will the British EU Referendum be an Inside-Out Version of the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia?

Earlier today David Cameron made public what had been speculated for a while now: if the Conservatives are re-elected to another term in office, then the UK will hold an in/out referendum on EU membership in 2017 or 2018. A country voluntarily leaving the EU would of course be unprecedented. However, it is possible that the dissolution of Czechoslovakia two decades ago – also voluntary – might offer important at least one important lesson.

One way to tell the story of the dissolution of Czechoslovakia goes as follow. Neither the Czech nor Slovak populations were particularly interested in separating into two separate countries; nor were the elites of either country that committed to a split. However, the then Prime Minister of Slovakia, Valdimir Meciar, found it useful form a strategic standpoint to threaten secession as a way of extracting concessions from the central authorities in Prague related. Normally, central authorities will do anything they can to prevent the secession of dissent regions, but in this case the Czech leadership called Meciar’s bluff. At this point, backing down from secession would have been political suicide for Meciar, and thus the two constituent republics of Czechoslovakia ended up splitting into separate countries. If you buy this story – and obviously this is not the only story we could tell about the dissolution of Czechoslovakia – then the moral is that games surrounding domestic politics can in fact lead to outcomes that neither of the players in the game are seeking to implement.

Why bring this up in the context of Cameron’s speech? I suspect that one response to the speech will be to say that a British exit from the EU will never actually come to pass because business elites in the UK will be so concerned about the implications of such a maneuver that they will find a way to block it. Indeed, Cameron himself said that he would “campaign for it [a yes vote on staying in the EU] with all my heart and soul”.

And yet, the Czechoslovakian example reminds us that once these things get out of the box, they can acquire a life of their own. Cameron clearly made the promise he did today because of political pressure to do so, and (I would suspect) because he felt it would help him in the 2015 British elections. Should Labour feel that its best way to neutralize popular support for the referendum is to also promise to hold a referendum should it win the 2015 election, then suddenly we will be in a position where a referendum is definitely going to be held. Who knows what the political climate will be like at this time, but we do know that referendums on the EU can be lost by Western governments. Should this come to pass, we might have a situation where neither political party truly desires an exit from the EU, and yet this would become British policy.

One last quick thought: the fact that Cameron proposed an “in/out” referendum I think makes this scenario much more likely to occur. A three option referendum – stay in the EU, stay in the EU but negotiate changes to the current agreement, or exit the EU – would be much, much less likely to deliver a majority for exiting the EU than the two-option version that Cameron has proposed. So one important question to try to answer in the coming days is whether Cameron’s decision to propose the in/out option was also a response to political pressure, or whether perhaps—assuming he is aware of the repercussions of holding a two-option referendum as opposed to a one-option referendum—it represents a window into what might be lurking even deeper in his “heart and soul”.

5 Responses to Will the British EU Referendum be an Inside-Out Version of the Dissolution of Czechoslovakia?

  1. Andrew Rudalevige January 23, 2013 at 10:15 am #

    Just a quick update to Josh’s intriguing post – Labor leader Ed Miliband’s first reaction has been to reject the idea of an “in/out” referendum. He says it would drag “Britain through years of uncertainty and take a huge gamble with the economy.”

    As Josh notes, this is only tangentially about Europe (and he is perhaps generous to suspect any leader of a political party of having a “heart and soul”!) The Liberal Democrats’ (and more so their voters’) frustration at their 2010 deal with the devil (one they had to make originally, in my view, but have not exploited well) have made them unlikely future coalition partners, or even useful fenders-off of Labour candidates, in the next general election. Thus Cameron needs to take the Tories rightwards to cut into the concomitant rise of nationalist parties like UKIP and (worse) the BNP.

  2. DavidT January 23, 2013 at 11:27 am #

    The version I had heard of the breakup of Czechoslovakia is slightly different. It wasn’t that Meciar was bluffing when he threatened secession. Rather, while he preferred a loose confederation, he thought secession was preferable to a tighter federation. Klaus, for his part, wanted a tighter federation, but would accept secession as a lesser evil than a loose confederation. So each side got its second-favorite position adopted.

  3. Matt G. January 23, 2013 at 8:50 pm #

    Not entirely unprecedented depending on how you look at it. Greenland left in 1985. You might think of Algeria too in 1962. Both cases were not the EU, but earlier incarnations of the EU.

  4. Fraser McMillan January 23, 2013 at 10:01 pm #

    @Matt G: it is also the case that the British crown dependencies are not part of the EU (though technically not the UK either, I’m unsure how this compares to Denmark and Greenland/the Faroes). In some ways the attempt to seek a one foot in the door relationship is typical of our constitutional asymmetry.

    The dynamics of Cameron’s pledge are most interesting concerning Scotland. We have our own referendum taking place next year – which has been compared in the media to the Velvet Divorce – and it’s ironic to note that the strongest supporters of Britain leaving the EU are those most virulently opposed to Scottish independence and vice versa. The First Minister has recently found himself in hot water because he said that Scotland would automatically accede to the EU as a successor state to the current UK. Not only was this contradicted by Barosso, but the FM’s claim he had been given “legal advice” to this effect turned out to be false.

    Scots are less hostile to the EU than other British voters, but only marginally (http://bit.ly/PDAtK1). Meanwhile, support for leaving the UK typically falls at around 25-30%, which is hardly encouraging for supporters of independence (myself included, especially given my exposure to some media effects literature). Leaving aside their history of Europhilia, had the SNP not already been so internally divided (on NATO, the monarchy etc.) it may have been rational for them to frame independence as an opportunity to leave behind Brussels as well as Westminster and hammer away at the comparison to Norway for the next eighteen months. Now, though, he’s stuck between a rock and a hard place.

    Despite the fact it’s unlikely, by the time the EU referendum materializes, the part of Britain least opposed to EU membership may already have left without having formally expressed the desire to do so! Now that Cameron has made his pledge, though, Scottish political actors have no idea what to say. It’s actually quite entertaining watching junior ministers sent to mumble platitudes and take the flak on television while their parties scramble to form an official narrative.

  5. MacTurk January 28, 2013 at 11:43 am #

    There were two, main, causes behind the break-up of the Second Republic of Czechoslovakia.

    The first was that no-one in Prague(except Vaclac Havel, the first, and last, President of the Second Republic of Czechoslovakia) was willing to countenance the addition of a hyphen in the state’s name. The Slovaks were pushing for a minimum of “Czecho-Slovakia”, which the Klaus administration would not/could not accept.

    The second problem was that both Meciar and Klaus wanted to be the top man, and when they could not get their own way, decided that being Prime Minister of a smaller, but sovereign, state was the best way forward for each of them.

    It is safe to say that there was no popular support for the “Velvet Divorce”, as opposed to the “Velvet Revolution”. Most of the older people I have spoken to in the Czech Republic have the same song; “We went to sleep in one country, and woke up in a new one”.

    They also complain, still, that there was no referendum on the issue….