Should Labour call a referendum on the EU?

Please note that this article was written for, and originally appeared in, Left Foot Forward, which describes itself as a ‘political blog for progressives’. The article was published on 07 January 2013, and is available here.

This month marks the fortieth anniversary of our membership to the European Union. Forty years on, and the UK has come to a crossroads with its relationship towards Europe. As the Conservatives are becoming increasingly outspoken about their distaste with the European project, it is time for Labour to confront the challenge of the EU. But, in addition to driving positive, constructive change at the heart of Europe, Labour must acknowledge that a referendum on the EU has become inevitable – even if this is many years away.

There is, of course, considerable contention of this point, and some argue that a referendum should not be called. The most cited argument is that a referendum could lead to a British exit of the European Union. This is not an argument against a referendum; it is an argument against democratic choice. It is true that referendums, in general, should be called sparingly and cautiously because they are not an effective resource in a diverse representative democracy such as the UK. However, to say that a referendum could lead to a result that you do not like is not valid. It’s called democracy.

So, why is a referendum needed? The most obvious point is that it will give the British public a choice in its support of Europe. The British want a referendum, so it is only fair and democratic to give them one. The European Economic Community (EEC) has been fundamentally transformed since the 1970s. It is now a European Union of 27 countries, with a wide range of institutions and decision-making powers. Moreover, over the coming four to five years, we will begin to see a new European settlement of powers. The unprecedented changes since the 1970s imply that the British public need to be given a choice in a reformed relationship with the European Union. The fundamental point is that a referendum on Europe will allow the British public to have a frank and open discussion about Europe; it will settle our membership for a generation. This point is particularly important because it underpins what politics is all about: debate, contestation, argument and persuasion. Europe remains a hotly contested issue, and it needs to be confronted directly. The spectre of Europe will haunt British politics until a referendum is called. [1]

This raises the issue about timing. There is an argument that, if a newly elected Labour government calls for a referendum, and loses, it would destroy a left-of-centre government, and plunge the entire party into a crisis. The government would probably fall. This argument, raised by David Clark, is indeed very powerful. This is a plausible scenario, but it rests on the assumption that a referendum would occur in 2016, which is not likely. It is many years away because a reform of the European Union will take as many years. We cannot vote on Europe before it has settled itself; it would give us more questions than answers. In order to give the British people a genuine choice in Europe, we must wait (i) until the Eurozone crisis is well and truly over and (ii) until a range of reforms of the EU have been implemented (reforms that would make the EU more democratic, economically rigorous and so on). Once both of these have been consolidated, it will be possible to call for a referendum. The new European settlement will not crystallise until some point in the next parliament, i.e., between 2015 and 2020, and more importantly, it will be more likely to occur in 2018 or later.

In the next five years, the Labour Party must make the case, first, for a reformed European Union, and second, for British membership of that Union. As described previously, Labour should use the growing momentum to call for a Convention on Europe’s Future, in partnership with other European political parties and leaders. A set of pan-European reforms is desirable across the continent. Once these have been agreed, it will be time for an in/out referendum.

A reform agenda for Europe, with a referendum attached at the end, is the strongest case that a pro-European government should make, and one where a ‘yes’ campaign can win. YouGov analysis has shown that, whilst the public currently seem to favour withdrawal, this is not very clear if the EU is reformed. Indeed, there is a strong case to be made for Europe. A frank and open discussion will re-focus debate away from the often superficial eurosceptic – or perhaps ‘eurocoward’? – arguments in favour of the more considered pro-European arguments. Pro-EU sentiments will not appear by magic: they must make a case for Europe that has been crowded out by a vehemently Eurosceptic media. Is it possible to make such a case? There is precisely such an opportunity, and pro-Europeans should not be afraid to make it.

Let’s take the case of the eurocowards: They believe that the British cannot cope with political engagement; that we do not have the strength to carry the European ship. They believe that we have nothing to offer to Europe and that we are better off hiding alone. Here is the vision of the eurocowards: an offshore, de-regulated tax haven which would be a pole for free enterprise in a global race. Could anything sound more preposterous? Pro-Europeans must argue that we can (and, more importantly, should) have a constructive relationship with our neighbours, and that we can lead the European project. Pro-Europeans must make the case that Britain has something to offer Europe just as much as Europe has something to offer the UK. Whereas eurocowards want us to play no part in the world, we believe in stepping out into the world and playing a part in it. Of course, there are choices to be made. The British public must learn that it cannot free-ride on the economic benefits of Europe without any commitment to Europe. That is not to say that pooling our resources cannot play to our benefit, as analyses do show.

So, should Labour call for a referendum on the EU? Yes, it should. But this referendum cannot take place immediately. Ed Miliband should take leadership of the debate by accepting a referendum for the end of the next parliament, which will (i) settle the question of a referendum and (ii) allow the EU to be given a chance to reform itself. Until then, the British political elite must play a constructive part in shaping its European future.

mg

Notes

[1] There is, of course, the added tactical reason that is often touted: it will split the Conservative Party and marginalise the influence of UKIP. I’m not sure these tactical reasons are particularly valuable: former UKIP voters are likely to return to the Conservatives; and the Conservative Party could just as much unite as divide over Europe.

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