As we approach the date of the next UK election on 7th May, there will be increasing debate about the in-out EU referendum that the Tories have promised for 2017. I am writing this post to explain why I strongly believe we should NOT have such a referendum.
Reasons FOR an in-out EU referendum
It has to be admitted that there is considerable support in the UK for an in-out EU referendum. According to opinion polls, a majority of the public agree we should have one. The main reasons given for an in-out EU referendum include:
- We have not had an EU referendum since 1975, so most current UK voters have not have had a say in whether or not the UK should continue to be a member of the EU.
- The EU has fundamentally changed since the last referendum in 1975, from a ‘free trade area’ to a far more integrated (and intrusive) union. The EU to which voters said ‘Yes’ in 1975 is now a totally different beast.
- The UK’s membership of the EU is holding it back from developing trade with countries outside the EU, in particular the BRICS countries such as China and India.
- An in-out referendum will ‘lance the boil’ of opposition to our continuing membership of the EU and reconcile the public to a future either in or outside the EU.
- We have recently held a referendum on Scottish independence, so we should not be afraid to have one on the question of our EU membership.
I do not believe that these arguments for an in-out EU referendum are well founded and I am very concerned that they risk leading us down the road to a profoundly ill-judged departure from the EU.
The EU has NOT changed fundamentally since 1975
The UK’s membership of the EU was supported by 67% of voters in the 1975 referendum. The question on the ballot paper was: Do you think the UK should stay in the European Community (Common Market)? As the referendum question shows, it was well known in 1975 that the EU was not just a ‘free-trade area’, but that it involved ‘freedom of movement’ and was destined to expand its influence over other areas of public life, including in relation to employment laws and product standards. The ‘Single Market’ reforms in 1992 were a natural development of trends already apparent in 1975 and, moreover, were strongly supported by the UK. It is true that the membership of the EU has expanded considerably since 1975, with the accession of Spain and Portugal in 1986 and many countries from Eastern Europe since 2004 (with strong support from successive UK governments one may add). It is not true, however, that the EU has changed ‘fundamentally’ since 1975.
There is no constitutional requirement to hold an in-out EU referendum
There is no UK legal or constitutional requirement to hold regular referendums on important issues in the UK. It is true that 11 referendums have been held over the years, but not before 1973, on such issues as devolution, Northern Ireland sovereignty (1973) and the Alternative Vote Referendum (2011). However, the decision to hold a referendum is entirely up to the government of the day. It appears, for example, that if Labour forms the next government after the election on 7th, it will not hold an in-out referendum unless changes are proposed to EU Treaties.
Spurious reasons for holding an in-out EU referendum
Eurosceptics and their supporting newspapers have been arguing for years that membership of the EU has been holding back the UK from developing trade with countries outside the EU. They also say that our membership forces UK companies to comply with restrictive employment laws and unnecessarily strict product standards. If only we could hold an in-out referendum and secure a vote for ‘Out’, we could negotiate fresh trading agreements with countries around the world and export our way to prosperity! But at what cost in terms of reduced wages and employment conditions for British workers?
Also, why is Germany able now to export far more than the UK does to China, despite being a member of the EU? According to an article in the Financial Times on 16th June 2014, the value of British exports to China during 2013 was $10.1 billion, while Germany and France sent exports worth $73.4 billion and $19 billion respectively to China. Could other factors be at work, such as the fact that the UK does not produce machine tools and expensive cars of the type that China wishes to buy?
Would a referendum ‘lance the boil’ of the ongoing debate over our EU membership?
As for the argument that another in-out EU referendum will ‘lance the boil’ of continued debate about our membership of the EU, this did not occur after the 1975 referendum, as agitation to leave the EU started to build again from 1977. Also, the success of the ‘No’ side in last year’s Scottish referendum has by no means put the issue of Scottish independence to rest, as the increasing popularity of the SNP shows. If anything, the Scottish referendum has destabilised politics in Britain, as Labour may have to rely on support from the SNP to govern if it forms the next government in May. The decline in the price of oil, if sustained, is more likely than any number of referendums to put paid to the ongoing agitation for an independent Scotland.
An in-out EU referendum would be very risky
An in-out EU referendum would also be highly risky. Everyone will recall the recent dispute over the increase in the UK’s contribution to the EU budget resulting from our revamped GDP statistics. I believe that dispute was largely manufactured by opponents of our EU membership, as the UK government must have been aware of the impact on our EU budget contributions when it decided to implement the new GDP rules – a decision made months before the dispute arose. But what would be the result if a similar dispute arose (or was manufactured) during an in-out referendum campaign? It could easily sway a sufficient number of voters to give the ‘Out’ campaign success.
I am not a supporter of the UK’s continued membership of the EU ‘no matter what’. I do believe that governance of the EU is not sufficiently democratic – how many of us know for example who our MEP is (or is it MEPs?) and how they are elected? Can we not devise a way of electing genuinely popular EU leaders with EU wide political support? I also believe that the EU Treaty should be revised to define, and entrench, more clearly the respective powers of EU institutions and the Member States. The principle of ‘subsidiarity’ in particular should be replaced by clear and objective rules distinguishing the powers of the EU and individual Member States. The ‘Single Market’ should also be extended to include more services, which would be of considerable benefit to the UK. However, these are constructive changes that the UK should seek to make within the EU, and for which there is undoubtedly support in Germany and many of the new Member States from Eastern Europe. Changes of this type would indeed require significant changes to EU Treaties, and that would be the time to hold a referendum on the UK’s continuing membership.
I am very concerned that there is so little debate in the UK about whether we should have an in-out EU referendum. Discussion is almost wholly focussed on immigration and the outcome of a referendum that many politicians and commentators seem to regard as inevitable. With only four months to go before the next election, it is time we had a proper debate about whether we should have an in-out EU referendum at all.
Are my views anti-democratic?
I am sure that some readers of this post will consider me to be ‘anti-democratic’. However, we are governed in the UK by elected MPs and Lords who have more than adequate powers to decide whether or not we should continue to be in the EU. We do not share the Swiss system of direct democracy. We had an in-out EU referendum in 1975 in which the public voted by a wide margin for our continued membership. We are under no obligation to hold another.
There is in my view a case for reviewing how the UK ‘entrenches’ important issues in its laws. It may be that ‘super-majorities’ of MPs and Lords should be required to decide issues of important constitutional importance like our membership of the EU, as is the case in the United States. However, that is an issue for another post.