Europe: Do we need a referendum?

May 21, 2012, 4:18 PM GMT+0

As the fate of the Eurozone hangs in the balance, John Humphrys considers the Labour Party's recent calls and asks, should Britain have a referendum on Europe?

Sometimes, no matter how much is going on in the world, one story persists in dwarfing all the others because the implications of what is happening are so far-reaching. The current turmoil in the Eurozone is such a story.

No one knows how it will be resolved but we do know, in the words of the old cliché, that nothing will be the same again. Many new questions are being raised, but also some old ones. And among these is the issue of what Britain’s relationship with our European neighbours should be. Do we need a referendum to decide it?

Britain has not had such a referendum since 1975 when the public decided, by a majority of two-to-one, that we should remain as members of what was then the European Economic Community, later to become the European Union. In the thirty-seven years since then there have been many calls for other referendums, but mostly about subsidiary matters to do with the EU, not about the fundamental issue of Britain’s membership. There was talk of referendums on whether Britain should join the euro and whether to ratify the Lisbon Treaty. Neither came to anything because, in the case of joining the euro, Tony Blair baulked at applying, despite saying it was our ‘destiny’; and in the case of Lisbon, David Cameron argued it was too late for a referendum once the treaty had been ratified.

All along, though, there have also been demands for a second go at the fundamental in/out referendum. These have come almost exclusively from those opposed to British membership, largely on the right of the Tory party and from UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, whose whole existence is built on the case for British withdrawal. Now, however, the idea of an in/out referendum is being floated by some of those who say we should stay in, namely the Labour Party. Why?

Democratic legitimacy?

The main impetus in the party behind this idea seems to come from the newly appointed policy coordinator, Jon Cruddas. Mr Cruddas, who worked for Tony Blair at No 10 before becoming an MP himself, stood out from his Blairite colleagues by opposing the Labour government’s official policy of being ‘in principle’ in favour of Britain joining the euro. Like many who opposed the policy, his reasons were not just economic but political. In particular he argued that the whole euro project lacked democratic foundations: it was an elite, top-down project without the legitimacy of popular support.

Many of those calling for a new referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU argue that it is precisely to renew this democratic legitimacy that a referendum is needed. A British voter would have to be at least fifty-five years old ever to have had the chance to help decide whether Britain should be in the EU.

Ed Miliband, Mr Cruddas’s boss, has not actually committed Labour to such a referendum but he has not ruled it out, and it is the first time that a party leader in favour of Britain’s EU membership has flirted with the idea.

Of course his critics have not been slow to attribute rather less lofty motives to this apparent shift in Labour policy. They say he may have calculated that sooner or later the Prime Minister will have to advocate some sort of referendum on Europe, so it is smart for Labour to be ahead of the game and so seem to force Mr Cameron’s hand. It does Labour no harm either to raise the matter now and, in doing so, stir up an issue that is very divisive in the Conservative Party. Last October over 80 Tory MPs rebelled against the government by calling for such a referendum.

If Labour’s new interest in a referendum is, in part, a piece of tactical cunning, it is not without its risks. Labour remains committed to Britain’s membership of the EU and that is in striking contrast to public opinion, which is increasingly hostile. Polls show a large majority in favour of withdrawal. So if there were a referendum, Mr Miliband might find himself on the losing side. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the briefing coming out of the Labour Party is that no one is proposing a referendum immediately, but sometime maybe.

Meanwhile the Prime Minister shows no interest in calling such a referendum. The Government’s policy is to hold one only if there is a proposal to hand more power over from Britain to Brussels. Indeed one of coalition’s first acts was to pass a law making this obligatory. Mr Cameron reiterated his position in Chicago at the weekend. He said: “I favour having a referendum if there is a proposal to transfer power to Brussels. That is a sensible position and why we have this ‘referendum lock’.”

But events in the Eurozone may make this position seem politically inadequate. For it is perfectly possible to imagine circumstances in which Britain’s relationship with our European partners becomes a burning political issue even without any new proposal to transfer national powers to a European level.

The changing face of the Eurozone

Few commentators predict that the outcome of the Eurozone turmoil will simply be the status quo. Most seem to believe that Greece is on its way out of the eurozone and there are deep uncertainties about the future of Portugal, Spain and Italy. What this implies is that the EU itself will look very different in a few years time, possibly with a much smaller but also much more integrated Eurozone at its core. On the periphery would be other EU countries, never likely to belong to the Eurozone. In such a world, Britain’s relationship with its European neighbours will once again become a highly controversial political issue.

Some Conservatives, anticipating such a world, are advocating a special sort of referendum. This would ask the British public whether it wishes the Government to renegotiate the terms of our membership, especially in order to repatriate powers currently exercised at European level. Others argue that such a referendum would be meaningless: who is going to vote against the idea that we should try and negotiate better terms for British membership?

What should happen instead, they say, is for Britain to start preparing for a fundamental renegotiation of our relationship with our EU partners to be conducted once the shape of a new EU emerges from the current chaos. The results of that renegotiation, they say, are what should then be put to the British people in a referendum on whether we should stay inside that new EU or leave altogether.

One way or another, then, it seems that a referendum on Britain’s place in the EU is now on the cards. The only issues to be decided are when and what the question should be.

What’s your view?

  • Do you think we should have a referendum on whether or not Britain should remain in the EU?
  • If you think we should, when do you think it should be held: as soon as possible or only after the current uncertainties about the future of the Eurozone have been resolved?
  • What do you make of Labour’s apparent new interest in a referendum: do you think it is simply a political ploy to embarrass the Government or a legitimate response to a changing situation?
  • Do you think the Government’s position of holding a referendum only if there is a proposal to hand over more powers to the EU is adequate or not?
  • Do you think a referendum on Britain’s EU membership will be held in the next few years?
  • And if one is, how do you think you will vote?

Let us know your views in the comment box below.

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