The UK does not need to be a member of the EU. The youngest people to have had a chance to express their opinion on membership are in their mid fifties so it isn’t unreasonable or mad to think that it is something which the current generation ought to be allowed to decide upon. Especially in the context of the problems within the eurozone and the bailouts of other EU states along with moves towards greater fiscal and political union which were only theoretical issues at the time the UK joined and confirmed its continued membership during the 1970s. However, having a referendum is no use at all to anyone without one of the two main parties committing itself to a policy of exit and setting out how this would lead to it doing things differently to make life better here in ways that cannot currently be achieved. That isn’t going to happen any time soon.
The House of Commons will vote on a proposal to introduce a referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU on Monday 24th October 2011. The motion reads:
“The House calls upon the Government to introduce a Bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the United Kingdom
(a) should remain a member of the European Union on the current terms;
(b) leave the European Union; or
(c) re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation”
This motion has led to David Cameron apparently putting in place a Three Line Whip to coerce Conservative MPs to vote against it and accordingly making the vote into a test of the government’s stance on the EU. That stance is to be against withdrawal but in favour of a referendum lock in the event of the EU seeking to take any further powers and competences from the UK. A watered-down version of option (c) in the motion to be debated if you like.
Unsurprisingly, this heavy-handed approach has gone down very badly with Cameron’s backbenchers, many of whom, particularly amongst the 2010 intake of MPs are to varying degrees, eurosceptics.
However, there is no real point to the motion even if, as I do, you believe that there is both a fair degree of euroscepticism in the general public and a strong case to be made for either withdrawal or renegotiation. This is not because of the approach taken by Louise Mensch – that a referendum is pointless because it would be “unwinnable”. I don’t have a problem with things being put to a referendum which might come up with an answer I don’t agree with.
A more valid technical and practical objection is that the motion appears to be designed not to lead to any clear decision that was capable of uncontroversial implementation. Having three options makes it too likely that none of the proposals will be the clear winner unless it gets over half the total vote, yet doing nothing (option (a)) won’t be a fair implementation of a split vote either because it would happen in circumstances where a majority wanted some form of change to the UK’s relationship with the EU.
More fundamentally, the problem is that none of the three main parties wants any of the three options. Whatever the outcome of a referendum on the EU might be, it won’t have the full backing of anyone who we have elected to carry out the necessary work. Even if the referendum were to be recast as an in/out one, there is not the political will amongst our leaders to implement exit. Nor have any of them set out what they would do in the event of exit that they cannot currently do. It is one thing to bemoan the European Commission legislating for the eligibility of diabetics and epileptics to have driving licences or to wail about it being able to investigate the NHS, quite another to say what the UK would do were it to be freed of such constraints across the board.
Having a referendum would therefore merely expose a vacuum in thinking about the options for the UK outside the EU. It isn’t in the plan for any of the three main parties. A referendum might spur them towards hardening on a position, but it would then come down to a calculation of political advantage rather than what was the right approach. As I’ve said before, there is a plausible case for Labour to turn decisively eurosceptic to allow it to push a protectionist “British Jobs for British Workers” agenda, making sure that the Thameslink trains procurement drama doesn’t happen again and so on. At the same time, a large rebellion of Tory MPs that weakened the government would harden the case for Labour continuing to be pro-EU on the basis of “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”. Ed Miliband might rather like to wade in and run a more protectionist and interventionist industrial policy but he’d probably prefer to become PM following Tory civil war over Europe and live with the consequences of having rather fewer levers to pull once he got to Number 10.
Staying in power is the main thing for any government, much though I find this depressing. Even though the majority of British people might possibly tend towards euroscepticism, in the absence of a serious and detailed vision of how the UK would be improved by withdrawal or renegotiation, something which has to be led by the leaders of the Parties, the issue is an abstract one. If anyone had such a compelling vision I’m not sure they’d even need to put it to a referendum. In a time when we are all struggling quite enough thank you very much with the concrete impacts of global economic crisis, voting on an abstraction is likely to be as popular as voting on the introduction of the Alternative Vote system.