Britain’s involvement in the European project has been a masterclass that makes us cringe. We are sure we are getting it wrong somehow: too slow to join at the start, too soft to have our own way now, serial dupes among wily continentals. This sting of embarrassment cannot be based on the record of events, which shows a nation dodging the euro and the borderless world of Schengen, while pushing the European Union (EU) eastward and founding a single market. The worst that can be said of our big European decisions is that we fluked them.

In diplomacy no less than romance, a lack of emotional engagement allows you to hedge and keep options open while the other party subjugates their judgement to enthusiasm. Britain has navigated the EU’s many-angled maze with some success because it is not mesmerised by the teleology of ending centuries of war. The United Kingdom’s benign experience of self-government means it can judge supranational experiments by their merits, not as steps to a certain destiny. If you are not running away from the past, you do not crash into stuff.

If there is a smudge on Britain’s record in Europe, it is the timing of its great democratic consultations. The first referendum was too early to be useful, the second already has the same feel of premature fuss. Voters had a direct say in 1975, after just two years inside the European Economic Community. They could have known little about the club’s ambitions and future members. They were asked to throw a dart at a board in a poorly-lit room.

Had it happened in 1986, when the Single European Act exchanged national sovereignty for one giant marketplace, voters could have ratified or rejected that big bang of integration. Had they said no, the single market (a British idea) and its accompanying regulation (the French quid pro quo) may not exist now in recognisable form.

The referendum expected this summer is another example of democracy running ahead of history. If it is a verdict on membership to date, it is a foregone conclusion — or should be. Britain is richer and better run than when it joined. This can only mean Europe has enriched Britain or, at worst, failed to hold Britain back decisively. There is no third option: It cannot have been a disaster unless modern Britain is a disaster. And if membership is good to neutral, you have to prize sovereignty as an end in itself (and believe it really is on offer outside the EU) to go through the commotion of leaving.

Rubber-stamping decisions

None of this applies if the referendum is actually a bet on the future. In the next decade integration could stall, unwind or tighten. If the Eurozone gains some of the characteristics of a country, with shared arrangements for fiscal policy and debt, it may also become the decision-making body of the EU in all but name. Britain would be in the invidious position of rubber-stamping decisions made elsewhere. If the case for membership is the ability to influence laws that affect Britain regardless, that case would shrivel.

This scenario vexes the government even more than the dread of uncontrollable migration. But with a referendum to win, Britain’s renegotiation of membership terms prioritised trimming welfare entitlements for migrants. Next to those concessions, the safeguards negotiated against Eurozone domination amount to a study in ambiguity.

Perhaps fear of the currency bloc is overdone. Perhaps it will respect British sensitivities, namely about our financial services. The European Court of Justice has struck down an attempt to ensure that euro-denominated transactions can be cleared only in the Eurozone.

The point is we do not know. We do not know whether the EU in a decade will have a single market in services or just keep talking a good game about it. We do not know whether non-EU countries will account for so much of our export revenue as to make the European market (and the rules that govern it) less central to our livelihoods.

The referendum is happening too early to be meaningful. There is nothing to stop Britain from having another one later, some say, except there is.

Referendums take place so rarely because they require an alignment of political variables, not least a government with a taste for risk. Tories who seethe at the sight of David Cameron, the British Prime Minister who gave them their referendum, unaccountably forgive former prime minister Margaret Thatcher for withholding one.

And the referendum could itself have a dynamic effect on events, with a ‘remain’ win signalling to the Eurozone British assent to its integration.

In 2016, Britain does not know what it is staying in or getting out of. It should have waited — and trusted the British way of sublime equivocation.

— Financial Times

Janan Ganesh is political columnist for the Financial Times.