A referendum on Europe? Bring it on, for all our sakes

As we approach the 40th anniversary of Britain joining what was then just the European Economic Community, there is only one good way forward for the tortuous domestic politics of Britain's so-called European policy. This is for the leaders of the three main parties in the Westminster parliament to commit themselves to hold a straightforward "in or out" referendum once the shape of the new European Union that is emerging from the eurozone crisis, and the terms available in it for Britain, have become clear.

Since the eurozone is now likely to be saved, but only quite slowly, step-by-step, à la Merkel, and since Britain's position can only be clarified once the political consequences of saving the eurozone have emerged, that moment will arrive some time in the life of the next parliament: between 2015 and 2020, on current plans.

This is what David Cameron's tantrically delayed Europe speech, which he has now scheduled for mid-January, should promise. If Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg have the guts and gumption, they will beat Cameron to it and steal his thunder – not to mention, some of Ukip's lightning. All of them can quite reasonably refer to the exhaustive review of the "balance of competences" between the UK and the EU being conducted across Whitehall, and to be completed only in 2014, as a starting point for the conversation across the Channel. There would then be a settled national position. We, the people, will have the chance to decide whether we want to be in or out, as soon as we have an answer to the essential prior question: "In or out of what?"

The British public do want to be asked. In a YouGov poll earlier this year, 67% said they favoured "holding a referendum on Britain's relationship with Europe within the next few years". Though referendums should be used sparingly in a representative democracy, they have become an established part of Britain's evolving constitution. Four decades after the British people last had their direct say on the issue, in the 1975 referendum, it is right that they should have another chance – for today's deep and wide European Union is something very different from what most Brits then called "the common market".

To have a referendum before 2015, as some Tory Eurosceptics urge, would be a complete waste of time and taxpayers' money. We simply will not know what the post-crisis EU will look like, and you cannot have a proper "renegotiation" of Britain's place in, or semi-detached relation to, an unknown unknown. "Renegotiation" and "repatriation of powers" are Eurosceptic buzzwords which Labour and Lib Dems will probably not want to use. But the truth is that the EU is a permanent negotiation – and now more than ever.

Moreover, even a "renegotiation" can in practice be anything from a few tweaks at the margins (as Harold Wilson demonstrated in his "renegotiation" before the 1975 referendum) to a complete new deal of institutional detachment, putting Britain right up the fjord with Norway.

So this basic in-or-out referendum commitment is what all three party leaders should make; it is also what all three have thus far been wriggling and squirming to avoid. Why?

Cameron fears it will blight his premiership and end up splitting his party. Miliband fears it would hang over his government like an albatross if Labour won the 2015 election. Nick Clegg fears it would lose the Lib Dems some of the few voters they have left according to recent polls. In short, to use a word once popularised by Margaret Thatcher, they are all frit.

It is like a Monty Python parody of the great shoot-out scene at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Three sharpshooters eyeball each other under a blazing sun – except that in this British version they are standing in the rain, armed with water pistols, and all privately wishing they could walk away to have a nice cup of tea.

But they can't and they shouldn't. True, Europe is not high on the list of voters' priorities. People are worried about jobs, fuel bills, schools, hospitals, crime, immigration. But they are concerned about Europe too. When – if – things are looking up at home, and the shape of the post-crisis EU has become clearer, they want to be consulted. If all three party leaders, the Good, the Bad and the Ugly – assign roles according to taste – were to settle on this position, it might even reduce the salience of the European question in British politics over the next couple of years.

This would not, however, simply be kicking the problem into the long grass, in the hope that "tomorrow never comes". Tomorrow will come, some time between 2015 and 2020. Forty plus years on, we will again have the chance to conduct a serious debate about Britain's place in Europe and the world – not the tabloidised phoney war we have experienced over the 20 years since the Maastricht treaty travails of John Major. It will be the job of this government and of the next, whatever its political complexion, to prepare the ground as well as possible with our European partners so as to secure the best possible deal for Britain.

As the good agreement on the eurozone banking union has just shown, such things can be done. There are people in the EU who would be happy to see the back of us (or whatever the French phrase is) but there are also many, not least the Germans and the Poles, who really want to keep Britain in.

As someone whose whole working life has been bound up with the matter of Europe, I welcome the prospect of this great referendum debate. Unlike many of my pro-European friends, I think we will win. I do not believe the brains of the British people have been so addled by the Sun and Daily Mail that they will, confronted with the facts about what it is really like to be Norway (without the oil) or Switzerland, decide that exit – Brexit or Brixit – is the best option for this country. And if they do? Well, that will be a historic mistake, but the people will have spoken. I believe in the European project, but I believe even more in democracy. Bring it on, I say, and may the best arguments win.

Timothy Garton Ash is a historian, political writer and Guardian columnist.

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