Anybody just vaguely familiar with EU's workings knew already that nothing substantial could be negotiated in a few months. Substantial changes require changes to the treaties, and with 28 member states it will take at least 5 years to change as much as a comma.
But now the referendum has been called - with potential disastrous consequences for EU, Europe and not the least, for the EU.
EU created peace
It is worthwhile to remember the historical roots of the EU. Since Germany created itself as a national state under the stewardship of Bismarck, the country always had the uncomfortable geopolitical situation of having strong and often bellicose neighbours to the east and to the west: Russia and France. Bismarck saw this clearly and built a national strategy on the necessity to be able to fight a two-front war. This national strategy touched upon education, infrastructure, industrial production and defense. The strategy required speed, mobility and technological and tactical advantages. It is probably not wrong to claim that Germany's situation today is a direct consequence of the geopolitical situation and of Bismarck's response.
After Germany had tried to "solve" the geopolitical dilemma twice, each time ending in defeat, the US influence over Europe led to a major geopolitical change. By putting Germany under the US nuclear umbrella and by uniting Germany and her erstwhile enemy France in a close political and economic cooperation, Germany could finally forget the need to fight two enemies at once. The existence of the EU changed important geopolitical parameters.
EU is in other words the political and economic "leg" of the post-WWII re-organisation of the European map. Together with NATO, EU has been spectacularly effective. So much so that people today forget how efficient the combo has been in preventing war in Europe. The 70 years of peace in Europe since 1945 has been one of the longest and most prosperous periods in the continent's war-torn history.
The Britons have always had an ambivalent relationship to EU: why participate in the club of losers (of WWII) when we were one of the victors? For centuries Britain managed to survive nicely by playing the other European nations against each other and profiting from her naval superiority.
A tactical error
In 2013 Prime minister Cameron feared a major incursion on traditional Tory ground by the UK Independence Party. In order to placate the notoriously loud Euro-sceptical wing of his party and in order to convince euro-sceptical voters of his own credentials in this department, he promised a referendum on "in or out", in case he was re-elected as PM.
At that time, not much looked as if it would ever happen. The Tories were lagging Labour in the opinion polls, UKIP seemed to be a threat, and the Lib Dems still had some credibility and were not at all foreign to threaten Cameron to switch sides if needed.
And then things began to pear-shaped. First there was the 2014 Scottish referendum on independence. Scotland was deeper divided than expected and the outcome too close for comfort (55% voted to stay in the UK, 45% against). The next act was the 2015 general elections. The Conservatives had nearly no representation north of the border. So Scottish voters who wanted to vent their frustration hit Labour hard. The party was viped out in Scotland and that alone was enough that an expected national majority evaporated. UKIP did worse than expected because of a very weak party organisation, and the Lib Dems were hit badly by the law saying that the junior partner in a coalition partner most often suffer badly at the next elections (ask FDP in Germany).
Suddenly Cameron had a majority in Parliament - and had given a promise to the right wing of his party to make a decisive referendum after a round of negotiations with the EU. He had solidly painted himself into a corner with no way out. Except of course by resigning, which is not on the cards for now.
The European refugee crisis has changed the dynamics in Europe as well as in the UK. By many voters not steeped in history, "migrants" of any colour and shape are seen as the result of Europe's open borders and flagrant disrespect for national values. Europe has certainly not handled the refugee crisis in a reassuring way, and it has given wind in the sails to illiberal nationalist parties across the continent.
Also in the UK, this particular political mood has gained strongly despite the weakness of UKIP. It is visible in the fact that Cameron's negotiation strategy has been to gain concessions on "migrants" even if the people in question are far from being refugees. Most often they are quite skilled labourers who quickly find jobs, particularly in the UK construction sector.
So the refugee crisis has in Cameron's strategy morphed into a general "bash the migrants" policy - which obviously annoys the eastern European EU members.
How bad could it end?
We may be heading towards one of those rare moments in history where one man's actions actually matter. Cameron's wrong reading of the situation inside his own party in 2013 could now lead to the following scenario:
Were UK to leave the EU, Cameron will be toast having campaigned for UK to remain in the EU and will have to resign. His own party, the Conservatives, will suffer a deep division that will take decades to heal.
Both the EU and the UK ends up weaker and destabilised.
Egged on by national conservative movements, more countries will ask for substantial opt-outs, in particular in the fields of EU law and integration. Scotland will request independence from the UK as the Scots are firmly in favour of a continued EU membership.
The EU may end up being split and the UK may be torn apart. That could be the parting shot for independence movements elsewhere, in Catalonia, in Belgium and who knows, in Wales?
Cameron may still go down in history as the man who made the worst tactical gamble possible and refused to see the implications of it until it was too late.
And over in Moscow, Putin and his inner circle will be all smiles.