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”.

[Cross-posted at The Monkey Cage]

Joshua Tucker

Joshua Tucker is a Professor of Politics at New York University.