22 October 2011

Europe: the case for a referendum

Some considerable excitement going on (in relative terms) in the House of Commons on Monday, where several dozen Tories (mainly from the right of the party) and some maverick Labour MPs, plus Caroline Lucas, will be voting in favour of a referendum on staying in the EU.

All three main party leaders will be whipping their MPs against the motion. (I note in passing that the Lib Dem manifesto contained a pledge to hold an in/out referendum on Europe. We can safely assume that that pledge went the way of all their other pledges, then? Well done, Fib Dems.)

My view is that there is a very clear case for a referendum. Opinion polls show very strong support - often a majority - for leaving the EU. At the last Euro election, the UK Independence Party came second in terms of vote share, and many Tory party and Green party members are also in favour of leaving. Circumstances have changed hugely since the last referendum in 1975. So for me, the case is difficult to argue.

As for what the result of a referendum would be... it's very hard to say. The case of the AV referendum shows that the initial opinion polling may bear very little relation to the final result. The "Yes" campaign would be hugely well funded and would be able to use the three main party leaders and front benches in its campaigning (actually, looking at them again, maybe that's a handicap rather than an asset). As in the AV referendum and the 1975 campaign the "No" campaign would suffer from being a mix of left and right wingers with few affinities with each other; the combination of Enoch Powell and Tony Benn on the "No" platform in '75 probably created a negative crossover effect whereby each turned off the other's supporters, and you can imagine the same thing happening with (for example) Nigel Farage and Caroline Lucas this time round.

But part of the reason for holding a referendum would be to find all this out. Therefore, I will be emailing my MP (the extreme Tory right winger Priti Patel) to recommend that she vote in favour of a referendum.

The obvious next question is: If there were a referendum, how would I vote? Probably I'd vote "no" although not for the same reasons as most of the "no" group. I'm basically a Eurofederalist who wants legislative matters decided by an elected European Parliament with Westminster relegated to the kind of role that a county council has in England at the moment. I'd abolish the European Commission and run the whole system through parliament with a European Prime Minister and a figurehead president. The various national heads of state would be kept on for ceremonial purposes.

But the current EU isn't anything to do with this vision. The European Parliament has very limited powers and most decisions are taken by unelected commissioners. To be frank (and there is a danger of sounding like Van Patten here but I'm going to say it anyway) the current EU governance structure is closer to China than any parliamentary democracy. And that's very dangerous.

So, I'd vote to come out of Europe for the moment, but if a true federalist Europe could be constructed either by renegotiation of existing treaties or by reconstruction from the ground up, I'd be an enthusiastic supporter of British re-entry.

One other point: There is the possibility of a 3-option referendum with "renegotiation" as the 3rd option. if this were the question, I'd be wary of voting for renegotiation because it's too fuzzy and allows too many opportunities to sell the voters out. In the 1975 referendum, Harold Wilson made it clear that a yes vote was a vote for renegotiation of the terms of the UK's membership - but in the end almost nothing was changed. One can imagine Cam/Clegg or Miliband doing much the same thing.

So, any MPs reading this: please do the right thing by your constituents and vote yes to a referendum on the EU on Monday 24th.


red two said...

good stuff.

agree on the "renegotiation" option. Also gives the voter a fence to sit on,although on a topic where opinions tend to sit on the extremes I wonder how many would do so.

Van Patten said...

An excellent post - and whilst I'll (time depending) probably write a post on my own bat, the sentiments are had to argue with.

The Lucas/Farage angle is interesting. I'm no great fan of the former (whilst the latter is something of a hero for obvious reasons) because as an MEP she colluded with the Green faction in Europe to basically sell almost every manufacturing industry to the Chinese through over regulation. However, I am pleased by support whereever it comes from.

I don't think the Cold War dynamic which made the Benn/Powell juxtaposition so bizarre exists today, although two great Salisbury Review articles by the MP Sir Richard Body, one of Major's 'bastards' revealed that the 'No' campaign in 1975 were undermined by a series of 'off the record' briefings whereby influential aristocrats and businessmen were given false information that the campaign was being funded by the USSR to undermine NATO.

Where I have to diverge is in your desire for a Federal Europe. Given significant linguistic and cultural differences, I don't think your vision can be made to work. Even in the US, where despite a relatively shared cultural heritage, the differences between the Mid West or South and the East Coast are enormous, it's a tricky ask - within a 30 country EU with 30 plus languages it simply will not work. What could work is the original vision of a Free Trade area, along the lines of an EFTA or EEC, but otherwise the big countries are always going to trump the small ones. Nevertheless, were I back in the UK, I'd certainly be backing a referendum, and helping the destruction of what is arguably next to Cuba and North Korea the least democratic regime in the world (Red Two, I'm open to challenge regarding some African countries bar Zimbabwe and possibly CAR or DR Congo, but most have a degree of transparency in decision-making (even if in practice it's a one party state) that the European Commission doesn't ))

The renegotiation is a fob to keep the status quo through inertia and should NOT be offered, in my humble opinion. As I say, more to follow.

Hymnal Weaser said...

"I'm basically a Eurofederalist who wants legislative matters decided by an elected European Parliament with Westminster relegated to the kind of role that a county council has in England at the moment."

You have a bizarre definition of "Eurofederalist". Surely most federalists (e.g., the libdems, once upon a time) would say part of the problem with our system of local government "at the moment" is that it isn't sufficiently federalist. Powers are not devolved down to the appropriate level but instead county councils are hamstrung by funding constraints and diktats from Westminster. Wouldn't German or US states be better examples? Doesn't too much (i.e. any non-essential) pan-European decision making simple disenfranchise "local" electorates?

Hal Berstram said...

Weaser - fair point: under Eurofederalism the national govts would probably be more like the Scottish govt in the UK than a county council. The key thing is that the federal tier needs to be elected rather than mainly based on appointments, as is currently the case.

Whatever did happen to the "Fib Dems" and Eurofederalism, I wonder?