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 Why rural areas need free buses

    Why rural areas need free buses

    To have a fully functioning society, bus services in rural areas should be free of charge. For young people seeking employment, education or entertainment, the unwell needing to visit and be visited in hospitals or the elderly wanting to break the loneliness of isolation, public transport is essential. If governments don’t want to spend money on services in rural areas, they should at least provide the means for people who live there to get to them in urban areas. Regular […]

    Read more →
  • News Austin Mitchell rubbishes claims that Labour MPs could join UKIP

    Austin Mitchell rubbishes claims that Labour MPs could join UKIP

    The idea that any Labour MPs could follow Douglas Carswell’s lead by joining UKIP is merely “wishful thinking” on their part, according to a prominent Eurosceptic Labour MP. Yesterday, Nigel Farage claimed that he has “spoken to many” Labour MPs this year who “support everything UKIP is trying to do”, while a UKIP source today told the BBC that as many as ten “deeply unhappy” Labour MPs who are “fed up with being patronised by the Labour glitterati” and would […]

    Read more →
  • Featured David Cameron only has himself to blame for his problems with UKIP

    David Cameron only has himself to blame for his problems with UKIP

    This week’s defection by Douglas Carswell to UKIP was a hammer blow for the Prime Minister’s authority.  David Cameron and the Tories are running scared of UKIP and are more divided than ever before. With Stuart Wheeler, the former Tory donor and now UKIP treasurer, declaring that at least two more MPs are “seriously considering” defecting, we know that the introspection and turmoil is set to continue. As the Tories’ identity crisis deepens, it becomes clearer and clearer that they cannot provide […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Rather than focusing on free schools, Labour should consider supporting home education

    Rather than focusing on free schools, Labour should consider supporting home education

    The Labour Party, since at least 2010 have gradually begun to present a coherent, cohesive education programme, to present to the electorate in time for the General Election in 2015. We’ve rightly focused on Michael Gove’s profligate waste of money on free schools. We’ve rightly focused on the Liberal Democrats’ breaking their pledge to vote against raising tuition fees. We’ve rightly focused on the other 50% of people who decide to not go to University and we’re now right to […]

    Read more →
  • Comment Attracting the anti-UKIP vote – why Clacton matters for Labour

    Attracting the anti-UKIP vote – why Clacton matters for Labour

    Make yourself a cuppa, pull up a comfy chair, and watch. Since Douglas Carswell’s surprise/no-surprise defection to UKIP yesterday and the forcing of a by-election in Clacton, there will be some in the party tempted to adopt this attitude. And not without good reason. Consider the previous by-election outings over the last year or so. In Eastleigh, a Liberal Democrat/Tory marginal, from nowhere, became a LD/UKIP marginal. The Conservatives were dumped into third place and our vote stagnated at just […]

    Read more →