Without clarity, the EU referendum debate is dangerous

October 18, 2011 5:46 pm

Author:

Share this Article

It’s far from clear how Labour should deal with the growing argument about a referendum on Britain’s relationship with the European Union

Today MPs on the Backbench Business Committee have agreed to debate and, crucially, to vote on whether the UK should stay in the European Union. The debate is scheduled for 27th October, and the call is that a referendum should be held by May 2013. The motion agreed states that a referendum should have 3 options: status quo, renegotiation, and out.

I personally come to this as a referendum-sceptic, due to my experience of the referendum to establish the Welsh Assembly and the referendum on the Alternative Vote, neither of which give me any confidence in referendums as the way to deal with complex, multi-faceted questions (for what it’s worth, one of those votes went the way I wanted it to, the other didn’t).

Add the complexity of the European Union, and the difficulty of separating truth from myth about it, and any referendum on EU matters would be fraught with risk. While it is reasonably clear what the status quo is (with all of its associated advantages and disadvantages), the implications of the other two options are far from clear.

Any renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU would need Treaty change at EU level, and treaties need the agreement of all EU Member States. There is no chance that any agreement – even in principle – could be achieved within the EU 27 between now and 2013, so a ‘renegotiation’ result in a referendum would only be able to mandate the government of the day, with no guarantee that the other EU Member States would comply. How the likelihood (or not) of their compliance would be factored into any campaign is anyone’s guess.

A result proposing to leave the EU is no simpler. I tried to examine the implications of the UK leaving the EU on my own blog, and the conclusions left me profoundly worried – the consensus was to take the vote to leave first, and to then deal with the practicalities afterwards. While the value of trade between Britain and the EU is disputed (much more detail on that here), at least 40% of the UK’s trade in goods and services is with the European Union. So what happens there has a profound effect on the UK economy – the cars we would export, the services we would sell would still have to abide by EU standards. So the notion that the UK would somehow immediately be set free of EU shackles is fanciful.

As if all of this were not enough there’s the further question of whether a referendum would actually improve the UK’s relationship with the EU anyway (more here). Within 5 years of the UK’s 1975 referendum on membership of the EEC the issue had resurfaced and had divided Labour. Further for the party this time the danger is the Tories use a debate on EU matters as a means to erode social protections vital to UK workers thanks to EU legislation – issues such as social protection and maternity leave.

Between now and the debate on 27th October, and with a rising volume thereafter, we are all going to have to endure a series of simplified slogans about democracy and sovereignty. Throughout all of that be sure to ask: what would renegotiation or leaving the EU actually mean? I’ve never heard coherent answers on either of those points, and until we get some then this whole debate about a referendum is dangerous.

Latest

  • Comment The mansion tax is a progressive tax and Labour in London should support it

    The mansion tax is a progressive tax and Labour in London should support it

    For those of us who believe in progressive taxation the last few weeks in London Labour have been pretty dismal. We seem to have an array of Labour MPs (mainly wannabe London mayoral candidates) and council leaders rushing to the press denouncing the proposed mansion tax as a’ tax on London’ (or if they were more honest a tax on the rich parts of London). Yes the promotion of the Mansion Tax has been inept and it would more accurate […]

    Read more →
  • Comment It’s time to put the Green Belt back on the table

    It’s time to put the Green Belt back on the table

    The UK’s housing crisis has finally been recognised across the political spectrum as an issue that needs urgent attention. Yet despite this consensus, political inertia on housebuilding has seen subsequent governments fail to create policies that address the issue coherently and strategically. Labour’s recent Lyons Review demonstrates a commitment to house-building, with a target of constructing 200,000 homes a year. Yet while the Review recognises that the housing crisis is not evenly spread, requiring different solutions in different places, there is […]

    Read more →
  • News Scotland ASLEF backs Neil Findlay for Scottish Labour leader

    ASLEF backs Neil Findlay for Scottish Labour leader

    Neil Findlay has become the first Scottish Labour leadership candidate to pick up Trade Union support. Rail union ASLEF have backed the MSP this afternoon, becoming the first union to formally endorse a candidate (although it looks like Unite will back Findlay too). Their General Secretary Mick Whelan released the following statement: “We are supporting Neil Findlay in his bid to become leader of the Scottish Labour Party and, we hope, First Minister in 2016, because he has the character, […]

    Read more →
  • Featured 5 things we learned from Labour’s PCC by-election victory

    5 things we learned from Labour’s PCC by-election victory

    I was genuinely concerned that Labour might lose the South Yorkshire PCC by-election. In recent weeks local MPs and candidates have been privately concerned by what they’d been hearing on the doorstep, and it seemed that there was a groundswell of support for UKIP – with one telling me it was a “perfect storm” for Labour. In the wake of the shocking Rotherham child abuse scandal, Shaun Wright’s resignation from the post (which Labour doesn’t believe in and has pledged […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Labour will treat disabled people with dignity and respect

    Labour will treat disabled people with dignity and respect

    Exactly a year ago when the last Remploy factories were closed, government ministers promised Remploy workers support to find new jobs. But one year on, it is clear that promise has been broken. A survey by the GMB union has found that only one in four former Remploy staff are in work. Those who are in jobs are often on shorter hours and less pay. I’ve met former Remploy workers from Yorkshire, Wales, and the North West who told me how they’ve been […]

    Read more →