British Members of Parliament have agreed to debate and vote on the issue of holding a referendum – a referendum to decide whether or not the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will remain a member of the European Union, or leave.
To myself, and many other Europhiles, this is a terrifying possibility. I know the benefits of EU membership for Britain, and try daily to spread the word. A referendum amongst an uninformed electorate, convinced that the EU wants to ban bendy bananas, is a car-crash for democracy and Britain’s economy, politics, and international standing.
But how likely is all this?
To begin, the facts. Members of the Backbench Business Committee (please note, not party leaders et al) agreed to hold a debate on whether to hold a referendum on Britain’s EU membership today. The debate will be held on the 27th of October, and if it passes, we could see a referendum in a few months.
Given the constantly high levels of scepticism about the European project in Britain, does this mean that the EU will soon only have 26 members?
Time to look at what is actually being proposed.
As Zac Goldsmith, MP for Richmond Park and North Kingston, has tweeted…
Parliament will decide (Oct 27) if people can be trusted with referendum on EU. Q will be 3 part: status quo, out, radical reform.—
Zac Goldsmith (@ZacGoldsmith) October 18, 2011
…the referendum may very well include three options – to remain a member as is, to leave the EU, or to radically renegotiate our membership.
To me, this third option is both a knife in the EU’s back, and our greatest weapon against secessionism.
But, what does Goldsmith mean by renegotiation? To find out, we need to know what the original proposal said.
The Backbench Business Committee, responsible for organising 35 days worth of debate, received the submission from David Nuttall, the Conservative MP for Bury North from the 2010 intake. He is the one who handed Cameron the petition for the referendum once it had reached 10,000 signatures. He is also ranked as one of the Tories’ most rebellious backbenchers. It may transpire that this works against him – if this can be spun as rabid isolationism, it could hurt his cause. His promotion prospects may also not be too high, and some MPs may be scared to associate too closely in the vote on the referendum, in case they harm their own prospects…
But that is speculation on the man at this point, and I would far rather look at his own proposal, found here
This House calls upon the Government to introduce a Bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the United Kingdom
(a) should remain a member of the European Union
(b) leave the European Union
(c) re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation.
I feel that this option will make it more likely that the debate will pass – Cameron and the frontbench Tories have long said that they hope to renegotiate membership of the EU, and Cameron and Hague in particular are both definitely in favour of a more trade-based relationship with our European partners. Given this option, how could they fail to support it? If this option wasn’t here, Cameron could feasibly have tried to nullify the vote before it ever took place, taking the referendum option off the table.
But it IS here and we have to deal with it. If the referendum is held, the renegotiation is our only option.
I don’t like the third option. It seems too close to a European Free Trade Association arrangement. I far prefer political cooperation, but this seems possible. We, or rather, any sensible British premier, can swing the wording. Unfortunately, this also means that the “leave” option is REALLY leave…
So, why is this good, or at least passable, news for Europeans?
Firstly, we’d never win in/out. It would be a wipe-out, due to over-riding suspicion and misunderstanding of the EU.
Secondly, renegotiation and reform is what we all, and what we should all, seek. The EU is not a perfect beast, no one is saying that it is. It does need to be reformed, and the relationship between the Institutions and the Member States (not just Britain) need altering. As detailed in this post by Andrew Emmerson, the Yellow Bastard, we should label ourselves more correctly as Euro-Critical – able to criticise Europe, while still believing in the framework. This is something we can more easily sell to the public. I also think we’ll find a surprising amount of support for such a position.
Thirdly, this is where party leaders can come together. Cameron, Clegg and Milliband can all throw themselves behind this third option, veering towards remaining in for Clegg, while maniacs like Farage of UKIP and Griffin of the BNP can campaign for the “out” vote. Hopefully enough backbenchers, particularly Labourites, can be brought into the cause on the side of reneg-statusquo. We need to look at how this would play to the public.
Fourthly, the referendum should be delayed for a while, at least until we have some reasonable defence… and a critical defence would be easier to mount than a devoted-Europhile defence. We can, and should, seek to balance the debate away from the Telegraph’s effective but factually incorrect headlines. We can only do
Fifthly, and perhaps controversially, no one understands the Terms and Conditions of EU membership. Much can be done superficially without fundamentally obliterating the UK’s place and position in Europe. Repatriating some powers is fine, as long as in the long run, we maintain the core trading links, political cooperation and international prestige.
Just to note, neither the vote nor the referendum would be binding. Some platitudes from the PM (such as taking the results into consideration when the next round of treaty revisions take place) may help to stem the tide of Euroscepticism. But it is not about to disappear. Right now, indeed, it gets stronger by the day…
UPDATE :- For more information on the likelihood of a referendum, and the internal struggles within the Conservative Party and British politics in general, read my latest blog on the three-line-whip…
- Eurosceptic Tories? (spinelessliberal.wordpress.com)
- MPs to vote on referendum on EU (bbc.co.uk)
- Britain should remain in EU, Cameron insists (guardian.co.uk)
- Tories to be whipped against EU Referendum? (spinelessliberal.wordpress.com)
- MPs to vote on EU referendum (independent.co.uk)
- (ADIEU) ToryDiary: 58 MPs (including 46 Tories) sign next Thursday’s European referendum motion #no2eu (dreadnoughtuk.wordpress.com)