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Expert Comment: The Ins and Outs of the European Referendum

Flags Friday 25 January 2013

Dr Michael Holmes, Senior Lecturer in Politics at Liverpool Hope, looks at David Cameron's recent speech on Europe.

After weeks of speculation, the Prime Minister David Cameron has delivered his big speech on Europe. He has pledged that if the Conservatives win the next election, two key developments would occur: they would re-negotiate Britain’s terms of membership of the European Union, and they would then hold a referendum on continued British membership of the EU. There are four things worth considering here – the politics of renegotiation, the efficacy of referendums, the timing of the whole process, and the motivations for going down this very uncertain path.

Cameron’s ambitions hinge on a successful renegotiation of the terms of British membership. Essentially, he hopes to be allowed to remove what he considers to be the unwelcome obligations of EU membership, and he has said that if there is a successful renegotiation, he would then campaign for a Yes vote in the subsequent referendum. However, the other EU states reject the idea of renegotiation. This has been made clear by German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, stating that “cherry-picking” the policies you like is not an option. Every single member state has had to make compromises and concessions to fit into the Union, so if one country seeks to untangle itself from some of that network of obligations, it risks unravelling the whole construction. Furthermore, while Britain got away with a (somewhat token) renegotiation before the 1975 referendum, that was in a far smaller community. And since then, Britain has continued to fritter away goodwill amongst its partners, demanding a budgetary rebate, opting out of the Social Chapter, opting out of the single currency. It is no wonder that Britain has been described by academic commentators as an “awkward partner”, as “reluctant Europeans”, as “a stranger in Europe”. The EU works on the basis of continuous coalition-building among the states, and successive British governments have proved very poor at the politics of building and maintaining such coalitions.

Even if Cameron does manage to force through some form of renegotiation, there is then the problem of the referendum. There is certainly an issue about democratic accountability in the EU. However, while a referendum might seem to offer an eminently democratic solution, it is nowhere near as clear-cut as that. The problem is that democracy must be an iterative, repeated process whose success rests on having regular elections, not just one-offs. But referendums come much closer to being one-offs, and they are not always effective ways of deciding on complex policies. In California, a series of referendums in the 1990s produced a complete logjam, because individual votes contradicted each other. For example, one poll produced a clear vote in favour of reducing taxes and expenditure, but another gave equally clear support for increasing teachers’ pay. Secondly, when complex EU matters are up for decision, it can be notoriously hard to interpret what is at stake. A commentary on one Irish EU referendum put it this way: “the answer is No: now, what was the question?”

A third problem lies in the timing envisaged by Cameron. His intention is to hold the renegotiation and the referendum after the next UK general election. That is not due until 2015, so Britain faces a lengthy period of uncertainty. I have already heard Irish economic commentators reacting with delight to Cameron’s proposal, because they are sure that any US companies looking to invest in an English-speaking country in the EU will now turn away from the UK and head instead to Ireland. The timing means it also risks impacting on the 2014 Scottish referendum, because the current Scottish nationalist agenda is predicated on participation in the EU.

Finally, what was Cameron trying to do? Obviously, one aspect was an attempt to shore up crumbling support for the Conservatives in the face of competition from UKIP. And undoubtedly, there are problems in the EU that need to be addressed. However, it is also worth noting that Cameron’s view of what Europe does wrong, and what he wants to negotiate, is a very right-wing agenda, emphasising the need for a more competitive and flexible Union, one with fewer regulations. But the global financial crisis surely suggests that what is needed is far stronger regulation, with far more emphasis on values of solidarity and cooperation. I agree that there are many things in the EU that could be improved. But I do not agree that the Conservatives’ approach will bring this about.

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