An ‘In-or-Out’ UK Referendum on EU Membership

Getting to Grips with Reform, Referendum and Brexit: Part IV

Last week our Brexit series looked at the UK’s upcoming renegotiation of its membership of the European Union, which is likely to be packaged as EU ‘reform’ (and quite right, too) to appeal to the other Member States. It concluded that an incoming Conservative (or Labour) government would be likely to achieve most of what it wanted during negotiations with the other Member States. Labour has pledged not to hold a referendum on the outcome of the negotiations. This is very sensible in my view since, bluntly, there is no way that a Labour administration could win such a referendum. We understand that a Conservative government would move from renegotiation to referendum in pretty short order. Indeed recent reports in the Daily Telegraph last week indicate that the Prime Minister is now looking at going for a referendum as soon as 2016, probably around 12 months after the General Election of May 2015. This week’s blogs look at the politics of Britain’s possible in-or-out EU referendum, beginning today with the case for a referendum.

The Case for a Referendum

If you read my reflections on the referendum in Scotland last September, you will know already that I really don’t like this particular tool of public consultation. My grounds for opposing the use of referendums are extensive, but let’s just focus on one point of principle for now. It is this: referendums pose a serious threat to any system of parliamentary democracy. Indeed they have always done so, reflecting their origins as revolutionary and Bonapartist instruments designed to give credence to the ‘authority from above, confidence from below’ school of government. That said, if we leave behind the age of revolution and empire in France, and return to the UK in 2015, there is a reasonable case to be made as to why I think that, despite all my usual misgivings, we need to hold a plebiscite on our membership of the EU. A number of points may be made here.

Firstly, and most importantly of all, holding an EU referendum matters fundamentally for the politics of the Conservative party. British Conservatives have struggled with “Europe” for 30 years. Europe laid low the government of John Major in the 1990s, accounted for a part of William Hague’s lacklustre result in the 2001 General Election (remember 12 days to save the pound?), distracted the party from forming a serious opposition to Labour for much of its 13-year spell in government and now threatens (again) to split the party completely. There isn’t very much remaining of a pro-European wing in the Tory party these days. Today’s approximate dividing line on Europe falls between the hardcore of perhaps 100 MPs who more or less publically advocate leaving the EU if nothing changes in British membership and the 200 or so more pragmatic members of the parliamentary party who feel that EU membership is Britain’s least worst option. Of those 100 Eurosceptics, perhaps 75 (who may be more careerist than ideological) could be won over by a referendum in which in the British people vote to remain in the EU. Following a resettlement, the remaining 25 or so hard-sceptics would either have to toe the party line – or leave the Conservative party. And, of course, if the referendum puts a British exit on the table, then the issue is simply settled the other way – and the Tory party becomes the party of the status quo, which would be outside the EU. Either way, the referendum would have a decisive effect on the internal politics of the Conservative party.

And if we don’t have a referendum under a Conservative government in 2016 or 2017, it seems likely to me that an opposition Tory party led by a new leader would be more Eurosceptic, possibly even advocating an EU exit in the General Election of 2020 without a referendum.

You might ask whether it is really worth risking a British exit from the EU on uncertain terms to save one of Britain’s largest political parties from meltdown. This is a valid point, but we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of the Conservative party set against the British political and constitutional landscape. The Tory party has existed in one form or another since the late 17th century, which must make it just about the oldest political movement in the world still to be represented in a national parliament. Conservatives represent a significant part of the electorate and guard interests that will continue to exist for so long as Britain is a parliamentary liberal democracy and a free market capitalist economy. That the body politic should enjoy rude health is dependent on the vitality of its constituent parts.

Second, a settlement on whether Britain is to be a Member State of the EU or not matters crucially both for the UK’s capacity to play an influential role in the EU, and for Britain’s place in the world more generally. On the former, our capacity for influence is undermined if the other Member States think that we are about to leave. As Herman Van Rompuy, the last President of the European Council, noted: “How do you convince a room full of people, when you keep your hand on the door handle? How to encourage a friend to change, if your eyes are searching for your coat?” Quite. Membership of the EU only makes sense if we are going to make a decent fist of it. Outside of the European Union, the UK’s capacity for influence in world politics would undoubtedly be seriously diminished, a point that has not been lost on our American friends. So let’s settle the issue of membership, through a referendum, and get back to doing what Britain does best: setting the agenda in Europe and winning the argument.

Third, there is a sound (albeit perhaps theoretical) argument to be made that it would be useful for Britain to have a public debate on the European Union (talking over what Tony Benn used to call ‘the issues’). On the face of it, it has been a long time since the UK referendum of 1975 and the EU has changed a hell of a lot since then. Public debate may be no bad thing, but we should not get too excited here. One of the most frequently aired, but sadly misinformed, opinions in Brussels is that the British (and all the peoples of the EU) would love the Union if they only understood it more. In other words, a thorough-going understanding of the Qualified Majority Voting Process, questions of subsidiarity and proportionality, direct and indirect effect and so on would make voters see how much they love and value Europe. I’m really not sure about this. Back in 1993, data from the second Danish referendum seemed to show that on some issues the more voters heard about Europe, the less they liked it. Or more truthfully perhaps, the more bored they were. In a British context, the Scottish referendum underlined the public’s lack of interest in nuanced questions of policy (depressingly, the vote seems ultimately to be have been swayed by fears about state pensions). And, to reiterate, the experiences of past EU referendums in France, Denmark and Ireland all show that the result is determined largely by whether they like the government that is asking them the question or not.

Fourth, and least important of all, is the substance of the re-negotiations on which the British public would ostensibly be voting. A reformed EU is still overwhelmingly going to look like the old EU. This is bad if you are a Eurosceptic and good if you are a Europhile. The Foreign Office’s Balance of Competences review showed (more or less) that Britain’s relationship with the EU is working fine as it is. Tinkering with access to the British welfare state is mostly political theatre (with no intended disrespect to the fine institution of political theatre). There is no substantial evidence of systemic abuse of the British welfare state since the great number of EU citizens move to the UK to work, not to claim benefits. Naturally, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of the ‘my constituents tell me’ sort. I would hazard that the red card/yellow card/orange card rules on national parliaments will not attract much of the public’s attention, despite their intentionally matey locker-room nomenclature. Few voters will be sufficiently interested in completing the Digital Single Market or the Single Market in Services. There is something to be said from an insuring point of view that the UK needs some formal protection from an over-zealous European Central Bank, through formal guarantees that non-Eurozone countries will not be put at a disadvantage. But here again, it’s pretty technical stuff, not the popular politics of a referendum campaign.

A final point is more optimistic. The EU has been through a dreadful crisis in recent years (you can read all about it and its effects in my exciting new book. It’s reasonably priced and makes a good birthday/bar mitzvah/bat mitzvah/Christmas/Easter/name day gift). Above all else, Europe desperately needs a fillip in the form of a renewed political will to achieve collectively what we cannot achieve by ourselves. A vote of confidence would also be very welcome. Britain’s reform proposals could, we hope, achieve the former. And a Yes vote from those irredeemably sceptical Brits would provide the latter.

Can a referendum to stay in a reformed EU be won? Or will the UK head for the exit? What will the campaign issues be? Which side looks most likely to triumph? These questions will be the subject of tomorrow’s post. Join us then.

Professor Nathaniel Copsey
Dr Helena Farrand-Carrapico
Dr Anne-Claire Marangoni

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