Sunday, June 17, 2012

There is no need for a referendum on Britain's EU membership


If you listened only to the Right wing British press (that’s most of it) and many commentators you would think that Europe is in terminal decline. The economies are shot, there is political discord, the common currency is on its way out and we in Britain are well out of the latter and should walk away from the Union. I asked commentator  Iain Martin on Twitter what was wrong with Britain being if not at the centre at least an active and supportive partner in the Union. Here was his reply:

“Let’s start with the notion of sovereignty and work from there….”

And in those few words we get to the heart of the Eurosceptic’s case. It is, in reality, nothing to do with Europe's current woes. It goes back to the fundamental question as to whether the UK should have given up some of its sovereignty to be an EU member. This question was answered as long ago as 1975 when faced with the referendum question, "Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)?" 67% of voters answered "Yes. Remember this was about sovereignty the giving up of which was an integral part of staying in the European Community as it then was.

Now the Eurosceptics would argue that what we joined in the 1970s was an entirely different structure that what the EU is now – and they would be right. But though there has undoubtedly been a shift from National Governments to the Supra-National entity that is the EU lets remember that the UK Government has been at the table throughout. From time to time, as at Maastricht, the UK negotiated an opt-out of one or more of the EU’s changes. Other countries did the same. The biggest opt-out of all was from the single currency and ten member States of the EU do not use the Euro – including Britain of course. The point here is that nothing has been imposed on Britain by the EU – we have been party to all of the decision-making for the last 40 years. If we have surrendered some sovereignty we have done so deliberately and not been left outside the room whilst others decided what we should do!

The current UK Government is no different from all of the Governments of the past 40 years in wanting Britain to stay a member of the EU. The only justifiable case for a referendum is to try and silence the Eurosceptic critics. This, as it happens, was exactly the same reason Harold Wilson’s government held a referendum in 1975 – although in that case most of the critics came from the Left whilst today they come mostly from the Right. But the intellectual case for a referendum is weak. Although the Eurosceptics want a referendum it is not because they really believe that plebiscites are the right way to take decisions. They want one because they believe, backed by a rabidly nationalistic press, they could win. As in 1975 it is likely that all three main parties would campaign to stay in the EU and that their tactics would be to emphasise that they either will (in the future) or have (in the recent past) renegotited the terms of Britain's membership of the Union. This is all pretty spurious. It is open to any Britain’s Government at any time to institute negotiations with our EU partners about Britain’s EU role and duties. There is absolutely no need to launch a referendum to empower a Government to do this (or to confirm decisions already taken).

In short the Government should be an active and helpful partner with our EU member State colleagues at this time not a petulant reluctant member throwing our toys out of the pram – as David Cameron so irresponsibly did last December.Walking away when 26 of the 27 EU members agreed to the changes then proposed had a brief benefit to Cameron's image with the Eurosceptics in his Party but inevitably those few weeks of fame and adulation soon went away and normal service was resumed. That there will always be British Nationalists who regret that we are in the EU is inevitable - there is still a Flat Earth Society after all. But our future has to be as active partners in Europe and a courageous and sensible British Government would say this and eschew all the referendum nonsense. Don't hold your breath though – courage and reason are in short supply in the Corridors of Power at the moment.  


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