Sunday, November 11, 2007

Lib Dems should drop the EU referendum idea

I am sorry to see that Vince Cable is pushing ahead with the idea of calling for a referendum on British membership of the European Union. I had hoped that it would be laid quietly to rest when Ming Campbell stood down as leader.

The important question is not whether Britain should be in or out of Europe: it is how the European project should develop. But I fear that question would not be raised in such a referendum campaign.

Instead, the pro-European forces would concentrate on scaring people about the jobs that would be lost if we were to leave the EU. They might well win the vote, but it is hard to see what would have been achieved.

More than that, If the Liberal Democrats were to fight the next general election calling for such a referendum we should be saying "Vote Liberal Democrats if you agree with British membership of the EU. But if you oppose it - hey! - you can still vote for us because we will give you a referendum."

This would reinforce the tendency that believes all we need to do to win power is put out more Focus leaflets and "listen to the people". The Liberal Democrats do best when they put forward policies that some people disagree with.

If you want to have a referendum, have one on the EU reform treaty. Better still, stand up for your beliefs in the general election campaign.

2 comments:

Julian H said...

Absolutely spot on. A referendum on EU membership would, as you suggest, polarise opinion, reinforcing a stereotypical dichotomy of Eurosceptic v Europhile.

I thought we were supposed to be arguing for a more nuanced approach, supporting EU integration on supra-national issues, whilst opposing needless interference into local / national issues.

Alex S said...

I agree. Calling for an 'in or out' referendum is superficially appealing because it appears to offer a more fundamental choice.

But it disenfranchises the large number of people - arguably the majority - who don't want to leave the EU but do want to see it reformed and who reject further integration by stealth. In effect it concedes to UKIP the argument that we can't meaningfully influence the EU's development from within, but must simply 'put up or shut up'.

I admit, a referendum campaign on the narrow question of the Reform Treaty probably won't be very edifying. There will be the inevitable tendentious claims and counter-claims about arcane technical points, and some (though not all) opponents may indeed have an undeclared agenda of leaving the EU altogether. It may generate more heat than light.

But I think the alternative - of forcing the Treaty through Parliament in the face of clear public disquiet at both what they know of it and being denied a chance to have their say - is even worse.

It would also betray our pledge at the last election. The argument that we don't need a referendum because this Treaty is sufficiently different to the original constitution sounds to most people like sophistry.

The justification given is that the 'red lines' mean this Treaty has less far-reaching implications for the UK than for other signatories. But as experience (and the Commons European scrutiny committee) has shown, it is open to question how durable and extensive the red lines are. In those circumstances I just don't think it's credible simply to assert that it's only a minor tidying-up exercise; similar claims were made about the original constitution which everyone now seems to admit had some quite major implications.

The other line trotted out is that the Tories rammed through the SEA and Maastricht without referenda, and they involved much more significant transfers of power. True, but that's not an argument against a referendum this time: it simply means the Tories were wrong in '86 and '92.

So we should support a referendum on the treaty. But we must also address the broader questions of how deep a relationship with the EU we want, what can be done to make it more liberal, decentralised and accountable and what is our strategy for achieving this.