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

  • News Cameron’s new defence secretary accused of calling female columnist a ‘slut’

    Cameron’s new defence secretary accused of calling female columnist a ‘slut’

    This morning, the Mail on Sunday have reported that the new secretary of state for defence, Michael Fallon, allegedly called Telegraph columnist Bryony Gordon a ‘slut’. The story comes after Gordon wrote in the Telegraph earlier in the week that a cabinet minister, who she did not name, had spoken to her in a bar in July 2010 and called her a ‘slut’. Recounting the conversation, she explained, the unnamed minister approached her and asked ‘if you work at the Telegraph, […]

    Read more →
  • News Miliband says he’ll have ‘Public Question Time’ if PM

    Miliband says he’ll have ‘Public Question Time’ if PM

    Ed Miliband has said that if is Prime Minister this time next year he will introduce what he’s called ‘Public Question Time’. Speaking on the Andrew Marr Show this morning, Miliband said that alongside Prime Ministers Questions – which is an opportunity for MPs and peers to ask government ministers questions – that takes place every Wednesday lunchtime, he would take questions from the public on any subject. Following his speech on Friday and as part of a wider effort […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Who governs: governments or business?

    Who governs: governments or business?

    Who, in reality, makes the rules we live by? This is a question that has grown in importance as we see multinational corporations casting their net across the globe. Big business is often at the heart of some lobbying scandal or conspiracy theories about who is at the top of the chain. But we are currently seeing a real-life attempt by companies to wield excessive influence over national governments. The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership agreement (also known as TTIP) […]

    Read more →
  • News Seats and Selections PPC selected in key marginal seat Great Grimsby

    PPC selected in key marginal seat Great Grimsby

    Today, Melanie Onn has been selected as Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate (PPC), for key marginal seat Great Grimsby. Onn, who will stand as Labour’s candidate as current MP Austin Mitchell is stepping down, grew up in Grimsby and currently works as an organiser for UNISON. Prior to being selected, on her website she explained her reasons for wanting to be Labour’s candidate for the area: “Grimsby is the place that I am proud to call home. Grimsby is the place […]

    Read more →
  • Comment On policy, Labour needs to do to the NHS what it has done on rail and energy

    On policy, Labour needs to do to the NHS what it has done on rail and energy

    “A radical manifesto which transforms our society… A new settlement for our country”.  That was Angela Eagle’s promise to delegates in Milton Keynes last weekend and, in many areas, they will be happy with what has been agreed. One million new homes built over the next Parliament, a radical overhaul of the energy market, and part re-nationalisation of the rail network.  Put together and these ideas have the potential of forming a new settlement akin and worthy of those achieved […]

    Read more →