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 Labour should be proud of Tony Blair’s record in Africa – and we should say so

    Labour should be proud of Tony Blair’s record in Africa – and we should say so

    This weeks attacks on Tony Blair have been the most outrageous yet. Those who disagree with Mr Blair’s decision to go to war in 2003, now use every opportunity or headline to attack his foreign affairs record and discredit his Government. But on this, they’re wrong – and we should say so. Those who have signed the petition against Blair’s acceptance of the Save the Children award simply cannot do so based on his record for international development, which the […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Will Lib Dem MPs vote for a policy that will help to close the gender pay gap?

    Will Lib Dem MPs vote for a policy that will help to close the gender pay gap?

    Today I asked Equalities Minister Jo Swinson in House of Commons whether she would vote with Labour on the 16th December on our proposal to require big companies to publish their gender pay gap. She refused to do so. Given that one of the first things the Lib Dems and Tories did after 2010 was ditch Section 78 of Labour’s Equality Act, which provided the power to require big companies to do this, this may not surprise you. But the […]

    Read more →
  • Comment East Coast – a case of too much ideology, not enough evidence from both government and unions

    East Coast – a case of too much ideology, not enough evidence from both government and unions

    So, with some surprise, the East Coast franchise has not been won by a foreign public sector operator but by a private sector operator: a Virgin/Stagecoach joint venture. Mick Cash of the RMT has called it “an act of utter betrayal”. It’s certainly true that the government wants this franchise bid done and dusted before the general election and that the Tories have an ideological commitment to private sector operation. However, that commitment is identical to the ideological dogma coming […]

    Read more →
  • News Labour will reform the water industry to help those who can’t afford to pay their bills

    Labour will reform the water industry to help those who can’t afford to pay their bills

    Today marks 25 years since the water industry was privatised. In aide of this Labour have announced that they would introduce reforms that would mean people get a better deal from water companies. These announcements will be made by Shadow Environment Secretary Maria Eagle MP at a speech in  Thurrock, Essex. Where she’ll outline that under the Coalition water bills are increasing – she’ll point out that household water bills have risen by 12.5% since 2010 – and that nothing […]

    Read more →
  • News Tory MP favourites graphic porn tweet

    Tory MP favourites graphic porn tweet

    Karl McCartney, the Tory MP for Lincoln, has left himself a little red-faced today after his Labour opponent Lucy Rigby highlighted that his recent Twitter favourites included a rather graphic pornographic photo. McCartney has now deleted all of his favourited tweets, but we still have (heavily censored) screengrab for posterity: Lincoln changed from Labour to Tory at the last election, and McCartney has a slim majority of 1,058 – it’s number 18 on Labour’s target list. A reliable bellwether, it […]

    Read more →