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Expert Comment: Britain and the EU referendum

euro flag Monday 29 February 2016

Senior Lecturer in Politics Dr Michael Holmes discusses the Prime Minister's deal with Europe and looks at what the next few months may hold for those campaigning for and against. 

So far, so predictable. A few months ago, I examined the prospects for the British EU renegotiation, and I suggested that a) there would be a deal, and that irrespective of the actual content of that deal b) Cameron would sell it as a great achievement and c) UKIP would condemn it as worthless. And that is pretty much what has happened so far.

So what will happen in the referendum? Most analyses of EU referendums have stressed the extent to which they are rarely about Europe. Instead, they become indirect commentaries on the performance of the government. But for two reasons, I don’t think that will hold true in this instance. First of all, the government is deeply divided on the issue, so even if voters want to reward a government they like or punish one they don’t, there is no clear way of judging what way to go (although there is a possibility that the referendum vote becomes a proxy vote on Cameron himself rather than on the government). Secondly, this is not a vote on a complex and multifaceted treaty. Instead, a relatively clear in/out choice is being presented to the electorate.

As for the terms of the renegotiation, I doubt that many voters will be strongly exercised one way or the other by them. They are far more likely to respond in a more visceral or emotional way in terms of what they feel about the EU. But while it does depend on your political perspective, I find the outcome of the renegotiation profoundly dispiriting. For any progressive person, it is evident that the European Union is deeply flawed and in need of reform. But the choice now is between a bad deal and an even worse one.

First of all, the whole British renegotiation fails to address the great problems Europe is facing. It will not help to resolve the Eurozone crisis, nor the migration issue, nor the security challenges facing Europe, nor the problem of the EU’s democratic deficit. Indeed, if anything the renegotiation makes these worse. Britain has washed its hands of helping its partner countries struggling with the financial crisis; it has tried to undermine the principle of solidarity in areas such as freedom of movement; and above all, the revised terms create a deeply undemocratic structure where one member state gets a special deal as a result of whining long enough and loud enough.

Dr Michael Holmes

Department of History and Politics

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