Do all roads lead to a referendum?

20 September 2013

"Ever since Prime Minister Cameron’s speech in January 2013, discussion on the UK's membership of the EU has focused on when and under what conditions a referendum will be held.

Mr Cameron described the UK's current relationship with the EU as undesirable and promised that, if he was re-elected, he would renegotiate the relationship (in an effort to repatriate powers) and put the outcome of the renegotiation to a referendum in 2017, halfway through his second premiership. Since then the notion of repatriation has been replaced with the concept of reforming the EU (but with the explicit understanding that, if Mr Cameron is to have his way, a "reformed" EU will have even less responsibilities, in several areas, than it currently has).

His strategy has been criticised by many on both sides of the argument and for a variety of reasons. Some see it as an attempt to manage internal party politics rather than a thought-through effort to handle the country's international affairs. I argue that, by declaring the UK’s current relationship with the EU a bad one and promising to renegotiate it, he is embarking on a risky endeavour with a very uncertain outcome. As the vast majority of the UK's EU partners have stated since then, there is little chance they will let the UK off its Treaty responsibilities and offer it membership a la carte. Even those who, mostly out of courtesy, have expressed the desire to look into ways to accommodate Mr Cameron as well as those who share an appetite for this type of reform, have said that any concession will be limited (if not cosmetic) and any reforms will be for the well-being of the EU as a whole, not just to satisfy one member state.

So Mr Cameron, who has declared that he wants the UK to stay in a ‘reformed’ EU (but has not said what he will do if his renegotiation does not succeed), runs the risk of returning from his journey empty-handed or with too little to satisfy those on the right wing of his party and those on the right extreme beyond the Conservative party. He will then find himself in an uncomfortable situation. Will he campaign in favour of staying in the EU (against the wishes of many in his own party), even if he has called the status quo undesirable or will he advocate an EU exit, even though he has argued that EU membership is good for the UK?

His problem might become much more complicated much sooner. There is a lot of speculation that the Labour Party might call for a referendum to be held before Mr Cameron's promised date.

Labour and its leadership are committed to EU membership. They have stood against Mr Cameron's 'renegotiate and repatriate' strategy but they have supported the 'Referendum Lock', which stipulates that a referendum will be held if a significant transfer of power takes place in case, for example, the UK was to join the Eurozone.

However, Labour is growing increasingly concerned that it will be difficult to go into the 2015 general election without having matched the Conservatives' promise for a referendum, who will inevitably take advantage of the lack of such a commitment to attack Labour and play politics.

But, in a similar vein, playing politics might be the factor that will tilt the debate inside the party in favour of calling for a referendum sooner rather than later. Some argue, and most accept, that such a move will divide the Tories and wrong-foot Mr Cameron, putting him at odds with many in his own party who want a referendum earlier than the 2017 date Mr Cameron has promised.

But even if Labour decides to take this route, the exact date when a Referendum will be held remains an issue. Labour has three possible alternatives.

One option is to suggest holding the referendum on the day of the European elections in May 2014. This will have an unpredictable effect on turnout but will inevitably highjack the election process of UK Members of the European Parliament. The timeframe to prepare and deliver a campaign will be quite tight in that case, giving the advantage to the 'No' camp who are better resourced and have been working towards a referendum for years. Above all, it runs the risk of rendering the EP election pointless the day after, if a referendum in the UK produces a 'No' vote.

The second possible date is to hold it alongside the 2015 UK general elections. Such a move will, in effect, transform the whole election into a one-issue contest, diverting debate from other very important political issues, which might not necessarily be considered an entirely bad thing by a large share of the British political establishment.

The third option is to hold the referendum straight after a possible Labour victory in the 2015 general elections. In that case, it should preferably be held, as argued by YouGov's Peter Kellener, as soon as possible after the election in order to take advantage of the post-defeat disarray in the Conservative party, which will be busy electing a (probably very Eurosceptic) leader to replace Mr Cameron and to benefit from the goodwill granted by the electorate to a new government they just elected. But such goodwill be forthcoming only if Labour secures a convincing win with a big enough majority. If recent polls are anything to go by, such a big win is not currently in the cards for Labour, who might not even have enough votes to form a government by itself. In any case, Mr Miliband knows that holding a referendum in 2017, halfway through his premiership, in the midst of mid-term blues and against a Conservative party under the leadership of a Eurosceptic leader set to campaign against EU membership, is not a prospect he would like to entertain or confront.

So, a Labour referendum promise poses many complications and dangers, which will cancel out any short-lived political advantages. Calling for a referendum, for the wrong reasons and at the wrong time, is not advisable. Before embarking down such a slippery slope, Labour should be reminded that some mistakes are made to last.

It is also worth exploring why the issue of an EU referendum has assumed such totemic importance in British politics. After all, there is no tradition of referenda in Britain, with just two nationwide referenda having been held in recent memory: the 1975 referendum on the EEC, and the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote electoral system.

There are a variety of reasons why a referendum on EU membership has such a popular appeal, and many have to do with the sustained anti-EU campaign conducted by a large section of the media, who see a referendum, especially one held after decades of anti-EU propaganda, as the best opportunity to remove the country from the EU, a self-serving cause célèbre of their proprietors.

But the main cause resides within the attitude displayed by politicians towards the EU debate in Britain. Successive governments since 1975 have attempted to, and succeeded in, mooting discussion on the UK's membership of the EU and what it means for the country and the daily lives of its citizens. The EU might not be the top issue in the electorate's mind when it comes to Election Day, but the complete absence of anything EU-related during local, national and even European elections has rendered voters frustrated. To make things worse, the only time they actually hear about the EU is when Ministers return from Brussels, drumming their chests, proclaiming how they fought off those evil Eurocrats. Under such circumstances, one can understand why the public's perception of the EU has become an easy prey to the misinformation campaign run by the press.

As a result, the electorate has become desperate to have the conversation about EU membership with their elected representatives and, considering the extent to which those elected representatives have avoided engaging with them during elections, when serious and considered debate on important issues must take place, it is understandable that the demand for a referendum has grown.

Irrespective of the reasons why one wishes to hold such a vote, the problem with a referendum is that it represents a snapshot of public opinion, at a particular time in a nation's history. Many factors, beyond the issue in question, can play a role in the outcome which can seal a nation's fate for a generation. When it comes to something as important as the UK's membership of the EU and as complicated as its disengagement from it, leaving the decision to the result of a referendum is irresponsible.

Membership of the EU is of paramount importance for the UK, as displayed by statements from the business community, trade unions, charities as well as the US, Japan, Australia and Britain's other international partners. It should be discussed and debated constantly, allowing the electorate to renew its consent to EU membership at every election. If an important development, which requires redefining Britain's EU membership and necessitates the ascent of the people, takes place mid-term, a referendum can be considered. But playing politics with such an issue and gambling the future of a country is not advisable."

Petros Fassoulas is Chairman of the European Movement UK.