By Ben Fox
Brian Duggan’s piece on the question of Britain’s EU engagement and Sunder Katwala’s proposal of an In/Out referendum are very timely contributions to a vitally important debate. Brian is right: the European left is suffering a real identity crisis. He’s also right to say that an In/Out referendum probably wouldn’t ‘lance the boil’ of Britain’s relationship with the rest of Europe. It didn’t after the 1975 referendum on Britain’s EEC membership even though the margin of victory for the ‘Yes’ was so decisive. The infighting in the Labour Party continued unabated. The creation of the SDP was largely the result of pro-European Labour members despairing after the party decided to campaign in favour of EEC withdrawal.
But an In/Out referendum might at least deliver one thing – an honest debate about the EU, its role in global politics and Britain’s role. In fact, having been politically active for over ten years I think the quality of EU coverage in the UK media has got worse each year. If you believed half of the dishonest nonsense that appears regularly in the Sun, the Mail, the Express and the Telegraph you’d be forgiven for thinking that everybody working in the EU institutions was hell-bent on destroying all nation states and desperately trying to construct an all powerful super-state. Well I’m not, and I haven’t yet met anybody who is.
The lack of a strong response to this propaganda is understandable. The EU is low on most centre-left politicians’ agendas. But it has allowed a drip-drip of misleading or downright untrue stories that have corroded public debate on the EU. For example, contrary to popular myth, we don’t get a raw deal from the EU budget – if any countries have the right to complain they are the Dutch and the Germans. Since Britain, under Labour at least, seldom get outvoted in the Council of Ministers or lose everything of national interest in the Parliamentary vote, I can’t think of a single example where a piece of EU legislation has been ‘imposed’ on a recalcitrant Britain. The EU legislative procedure just doesn’t work like that.
But there is one point that needs to be driven home, especially in light of the Tories’ pointless Referendum Lock bill. EU law has primacy over national law – always has and always will. There is no point having countries agree to EU laws if they are then going to decide to ignore them. Moreover, to those whose reaction to that is: ‘fine let’s get out and just trade with the EU’, a word of caution. If we left the EU and, like Switzerland had a trade agreement with the EU, it would be the same. The likes of Switzerland and Norway have to adopt EU law too – they just don’t have any say in the making of those laws.
However, we can’t continue to ignore scepticism about the EU. Most people think the EU and its institutions are remote. They are less likely to know who their MEP is than their local MP, even though their MEP will, unless their MP is a minister, wield considerably more legislative power.
Many people feel that they were sold down the river in 1975 – that they voted ‘Yes’ to a Common Market, nothing more nothing less. This ignores the fact that the Heath government, in the run-up to Britain’s accession, explicitly spelt out that EEC membership would mean a deepening of political as well as economic union, but even so, the fact is that the EU of 2011 is very different to the EEC of 1975. It has a common currency, its own central bank, an internal market that is the largest trading bloc in the world and, when (and only when) all countries agree, a common foreign and security policy
Moreover, its parliament has evolved dramatically. From 1975 until 1997, the European Parliament was essentially a ‘talking shop’. It had little legislative power. Now it has co-decision power with the Council of Ministers on virtually all EU legislation. Virtually all major reforms to the financial sector in response to the crisis are the result of EU laws. The truth is that the European Parliament is, on balance, more powerful than any national legislature in Europe – perhaps except for the Bundestag.
I don’t like referenda. I agree with the adage that referenda tend to give the answer to a different question to the one on the ballot paper. Look at the AV campaign: I wouldn’t be surprised if thousands of Labour supporters who support electoral reform vote ‘No’ because they want to bring down the coalition.
Maybe I’m naive to think that honest debate is possible on the EU. We’ve never really had it before so why should an In/Out referendum make it happen. That’s why I’m not yet convinced it’s the answer. But we can’t go on like this without our position in the EU being badly damaged. And while an In/Out referendum may seem like cracking a nut with a sledgehammer, those of us who want Britain to be a fully engaged member of the EU shouldn’t be frightened of the prospect.