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.