Can an ‘In-or-Out’ Referendum be Won by the Yes Camp?

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

Thus far our Brexit series has looked at the politics and substance of the UK’s upcoming renegotiation of its membership of the European Union and considered the case for a referendum on its merits. Today we turn to the questions of what the campaign issues are and whether a referendum can be won.

Lessons from Past European & British Referendums

If the precedent of the second Irish or Danish referendums is anything to go by, a British referendum campaign in 2016 or 2017 is likely to be fought ostensibly on the concessions that a UK negotiating team wins from our European partners. Of course, this is not the real campaign. In practical and pragmatic terms, the referendum is about whether the UK is happy to continue as a Member State of the EU or not. The package deal won from the other Member States won’t change the fundamentals of that relationship and an honest campaign should make this point clear. Leaving the EU would change things seriously – even if few voters would feel the effects in the short-term. But then this is not the real campaign issue either. The question at the heart of the campaign for most voters is the disarmingly simple: ‘do I like the government and Prime Minister’? To very a small extent, the answer to this last question will be determined by the bargain struck by the British Prime Minister and his team since success or failure in defending ‘British interests’ will impact more broadly on the overall picture of government credibility. But most of the campaign will be about domestic politics, just as all European elections and referendums are – and will be for the foreseeable future.

It’s more or less impossible to predict how popular a British government will be in 2016 or 2017. We might suppose that a recovering economy and improving wage growth will translate into a “feel-good factor” and an impression of competence. Yet the possibility of funding shortages in the National Health Service (NHS) and public education as part of an ongoing overall deficit reduction strategy complicate matters further. In short, who knows? Let’s leave predictions of government popularity to psephologists and British political commentators and stick to the safer ground of what has happened in referendums past.

Past precedent in European referendums cannot, however, offer much guidance on the substance of the No campaign in a British in-or-out referendum. In the 2016/17 referendum the British, unlike the Dutch or French or Danes, will be not be voting on a particular new Treaty and some advances in European integration, whilst staying in the Union (although I think the Danes worried in 1992/93 that the rest of Europe would go ahead without them), but on whether they want to stay in or leave. The No (and Yes) campaigns’ visions of what life would look like outside the European Union matter a great deal here. The Scottish referendum offers some guidance, but the news isn’t good if you want the UK to stay in the EU. It’s always easier to present a bright-and-breezy vision of a new life outside the EU (or UK), than it is to argue for a continuation of the status quo at a time when voters are manifestly dissatisfied with politics-as-usual. It will also be hard for British politicians who have spent the past 20 years telling the electorate that Europe is irritating but necessary, to paint the EU in a more positive light.

The problem for the Yes campaign is that the day-to-day experiences of most voters, at least in the short-term, would hardly change at all after a British exit. Being outside the EU would be very bad news for certain kinds of UK businesses since they would find themselves potentially having to comply with two sets of regulations (UK and European, in order to keep access to the Single Market) – although it’s more likely that we’d just stick with the European rules in the UK for the sake of ease. We’d lose control, just like Norway or Switzerland, over how those rules would be made, even if we’d go through the motions of rubber-stamping them at Westminster. We’ll look in detail at all of these kinds of technical issues – in other words what Brexit really means – next week. For now we are only interested in the politics of a referendum.

At the epicentre of any meaningful debate about the EU is the question of sovereignty. Yet communicating to the public the nuances of the debate on the question of British sovereignty in an accessible way is a Herculean task. Globalisation has changed the scope of what national governments can do. Thus a part of the argument is that true sovereignty (i.e. the right to make meaningful choices in a globalized world) for some decisions exists only when we share it with others to form a greater whole. By the same token, a national parliament that simply rubber stamps legislation coming from elsewhere before it comes into force, whilst retaining the theoretical right to amend or block it (never exercised – just ask Norway or Switzerland), is not really exercising independent sovereignty at all. Yet for some the theoretical right to say ‘no’ (or ‘yes’, but I always feel that Euroscepticism is more about saying ‘no’ – perhaps I am being unfair) is paramount.

Apart from the central question of sovereignty and the usual stuff about trade, it’s fair to say that leaving the EU would also be bad news for foreign policy and much else besides. But these are not game changing issues for most of the public. “Vote to stay in the Union to avoid future legislation from the EU over which we have no control and in which we have little say becoming law in the UK” is not much of a slogan. Nor is “A Vote to Leave the EU provides only the superficial trappings, not the substance, of sovereignty” likely to mobilise wavering voters. [Given that this is the best I can do, you’ll be relieved to read that I’m not considering a new career as a political campaign strategist.]

The Yes campaign could fall back on the fact that more or less all the British establishment will line up behind a reformed package of EU membership, particularly if it is the mainstream Conservative party line. Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru, and all the parties of northern Ireland (except Sinn Féin) will also probably support continued EU membership, along with the Trades Union Congress (TUC), the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the Institute of Directors. That only leaves the populist insurgent UKIP and various fringe groups (British National Party, English Democrats, Socialist Workers’ Party etc.) to back leaving the EU. But without a positive vision of what continued (reformed) EU membership would look like, all this support will not amount to a clear Yes victory in the campaign, as the near-disastrous Unionist campaign of 2014 in Scotland showed. Some comfort for the Yes campaign can be found in two areas. First, unlike the SNP, UKIP is not a credible government-in-waiting with a proven track record – an exit endorsed by UKIP really is a vote for the unknown. Second, as noted in our first blog, a vote to leave the EU is a vote to break-up the United Kingdom. Enough said.

So much for the value of past precedent. With so many unknowns, this blog can inevitably only give a very approximate picture of the UK political scene in 12 or 24 months’ time. Let’s turn now to politics of the reform package.

Will the Reform Package be enough?

One thing is certain in the run-up to a referendum on a package of EU reforms: the British government of the day will not get absolutely everything that it wants. It may very well get most of it, including some major concessions, but it will not get everything because that’s not how negotiations work. The question therefore will be, is it enough? First of all, will it be enough for the Prime Minister of the day to endorse staying in the EU on the new terms? Or will he recommend a free vote taken on the basis of the conscience of the individual voter? Or will he controversially plump for a recommendation of exit? My view is that whilst individuals could be found in his party, his government and even his cabinet who favour any of these options, unless something goes truly awry, the chances are that he will have to endorse a vote to stay in the EU. There is no reason why anyone else in the EU should be willing to negotiate with him if he himself is not willing to endorse the deal to be struck. Thus support for the outcome of the negotiations is a necessary, but insufficient, condition for their success. Choosing to endorse a free vote would make a Prime Minister look weak since the only reason he’d have for doing so would be the absence of control over his party. Backing a vote to leave the EU on the outcome of the negotiations would certainly be brave, but it comes with the sense that the Prime Minister of the day would be saying: ‘I’m not very good at negotiating; I have failed’. Voters don’t like governments that look incompetent, even if a government calling for an EU exit by referendum would be almost certain to get its way.

One technical element is important here too: the legal basis of the deal struck in Brussels. Past blogs have already established that Treaty change is impossible. So that means that the UK would be looking for an agreement with the other Member States that ideally has some legal force. European Council “declarations” are politically rather than legally binding. The problem here is that unless the package deal is legally binding, it is “just a piece of paper”. This will be an important determinant of whether the package Britain wins is “enough” for the Conservative party. Failing a legally binding agreement, the UK government will have to get some cast-iron political guarantees from the other Member States, which to an extent gives them a walk-on role in the political theatre of a UK referendum campaign to which we will briefly turn below.

Notwithstanding all these doubts, I would imagine that going into a referendum campaign, the Prime Minister of the day could take a leaf out of Harold Wilson’s book and echo his words to British voters in 1975: ‘after long, hard negotiations, [the government] are recommending to the British people that we should remain a member of the European Community. We do not pretend, and never have pretended, that we got everything we wanted in these negotiations. But we did get big and significant improvements on the previous terms’ (Referendum Booklet, 1975). Fine.

British Public Opinion and EU Reform

The second test of whether a settlement negotiated by a British Prime Minister is ‘enough’, or not, is, obviously, whether a majority of voters decide to endorse it. Assuming the government of the day backs the new settlement, and that it includes a few important concessions, on the face of it, all the signs are that a clear majority of Britons would vote to stay in. YouGov polling conducted over 18 months between December 2012 and June 2014 consistently showed a very clear majority of Britons in favour of staying in a ‘reformed EU’. With 57% in favour of staying in and just 22% in favour of leaving after renegotiation (and 21% undecided), the case seems pretty overwhelming. But polling can be volatile. When it came to staying in on current terms, matters were much more nuanced, with 28–44% of voters favourable to staying in, and 36% to 51% in favour of leaving. Putting these recent YouGov data into longer historical context, we can use Eurobarometer data from 1973–2014 to map positive or negative sentiments towards membership of the EC/EU. Unsurprisingly, these data show that for the vast majority of voters the EU is not particularly important or something that they follow very much. Those who ‘don’t know’ whether they like the EU or are neutral towards it amounted to between 24% and 61% of voters over the 40-year period. What the data also show is that the great majority of British voters change their view of Europe over time, waxing and waning in their support for the EU. Counter-intuitively, over the long-term the Europhiles seem to outnumber the Eurosceptics.

The View from Outside During the Campaign

An important, but, of course, very far from decisive factor, of a referendum campaign would be the attitude of other Member States and the European institutions. Although the British public would probably not be particularly bothered about what Jean-Claude Juncker as President of the Commission or President Hollande of France or Chancellor Merkel of Germany had to say, it goes without saying that their endorsement would be useful. There can be little doubt that the College of Commissioners would ban all its members from making disobliging comments about British membership of the EU. And the Member State governments would follow the lead of large Member States and EU institutions. Everyone in Brussels would know that the British Prime Minister would be facing the challenge of his political lifetime, would admire his courage and would rally round. This is, of course, assuming, as we will, that a British Prime Minister was arguing in favour of continued membership. Beyond the EU, I am sure that Britain’s other close allies, such as the US or Canada, would be in favour of continued membership. But I would be astounded if they broke with convention by intervening directly in British domestic politics.

Summing Up

As we have seen, a British ‘In-or-Out’ referendum on the basis of a new settlement could be won, but referendums and the campaigns that come before them are pesky and uncertain. EU politics is notoriously obscure and does not lend itself very well to a popular campaign for one thing. For another, voters seldom tend to answer the question that is put to them, preferring instead to see it as a proxy for a wider question of ‘do I like the government that is asking me this?’ By illustration, you can ask yourself how close the Scottish referendum would have been if Gordon Brown had been Prime Minister instead of David Cameron. As we have seen, much would depend on the party politics of the government of the day (which could be a coalition involving more than one party), the attitude of the opposition, the role of the media, the state of the economy, the level of general confidence in Britain and its place in the world and so on. These are all too uncertain to hazard. Much of British business and nearly all the trade unions would be likely to back staying in. Predictions that venture much beyond this are harder to make, but I won’t let that stop me.

Hazarding the Result of a Referendum

All things being equal, if the baseline scenario sketched out above comes into force, and provided nothing upsets the campaign, an educated guess based on currently polling is that (what the hell – let’s put a number on it) between 55% and 65% of British voters would decide to stay in the European Union. On balance, I still think this to be the most likely scenario, provided that an EU referendum campaign is headed up by a Conservative Prime Minister on the Yes side.

Yet the very fact that there are so many unknowns and that the stakes have been set so high means that we have to consider the realistic possibility of a British exit from the European Union. It is to the issues of negotiating exit and the alternatives for the UK to full membership of the EU that the next and final installments of this blog will turn.

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


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