August 19, 2011
The People’s Pledge campaign claims to be in favour of a referendum on EU membership. The European Movement does not support this campaign: while it is not necessarily against a referendum on further developments in the EU – should Britain join the euro, for example – the European Movement does not believe that a referendum is required to confirm British membership of the EU. However, that isn’t really what the campaign is about.
It is motivated not by a belief that constitutional questions should be settled by referendums, but because such a referendum is the means by which Britain might leave the EU. By all means campaign against EU membership if you wish, but don’t dress your campaign up as something it isn’t.
Five reasons are put forward in favour of a referendum on EU membership (full text here): they are the usual eurosceptic arguments and here are our replies:
1. “No one under the age of 54 has had the chance to vote on our relationship with Brussels”
There are many constitutional issues that have not been put to a referendum even as recently as 1975. The retention of the monarchy, for example, or independence for Scotland. Do the supporters of the People’s Pledge also want referendums on those questions, too?
Kelvin Hopkins MP, a leading supporter of the People’s Pledge, opposed his own government’s proposal to hold a referendum on electoral reform in February 2010, so he has zero credibility in arguing that constitutional questions should be put to referendums.
It is true that the EU has changed considerably since the referendum in 1975, but every one of those changes has been approved by parliament. They have the same “democratic, moral legitimacy” as anything else parliament has done. Strange that people who claim that the House of Commons is losing its powers also deny the right of the House of Commons to use the powers that it has.
2. “The EU now makes a majority of the laws we must obey”
And it is also untrue that the EU is obliging Britain to privatise industries such as the railway system and the postal service. The decision whether or not to do this is entirely national. After all, in France, there are no moves to privatise SNCF or La Poste.
3. “The UK has less than 10% of the votes in the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament”
To be part of a political community is to accept that other people also have a say in shared decisions. If the UK has about 10 per cent of the population of the EU, what ought its percentage of the votes to be?
As far as referendums are concerned, there have in fact been 32 referendums in 19 of the current EU member states on membership of the EU or on new treaties: the results were 27 in favour and 5 against.
4. “The EU is costing Britain more and more money”
Fraud in the EU budget, while too high, is no higher than in the UK budget. The accounts for government departments such as Work and Pensions and the Ministry of Defence are regularly qualified by the National Audit Office.
The UK was not forced to contribute to the loan to Greece: it chose to. And since then, has chosen not to do so again. Because the UK is not in the eurozone, it is not part of the eurozone’s financial provisions; however, it is a member of the IMF and thus contributes to the IMF’s activities. If people think that the UK should withdraw from the IMF, they should say so.
5. “The EU wants to give itself new powers of ‘economic governance’”
Every European treaty has to be agreed unanimously by all the member states. The UK is not a member of the eurozone and can protect that status in any future treaty; it can also ensure if it wishes that it is not subject to any new obligations. If other European countries wish to agree a new treaty among themselves without involving the UK, they should be free to do so, but that does not mean that they will apply to Britain.
Not only do these five reasons not stand up to scrutiny, there are two further reasons why a referendum on the status quo would not be a good idea.
First, let us think about a Yes vote in favour of membership (this would be the outcome for which party leaders David Cameron, Ed Miliband, Nick Clegg, Alex Salmond, Ieuan Wyn Jones, and Caroline Lucas would be working; against them would be Nigel Farage and Nick Griffin).
It would settle no argument. The eurosceptics would surely carry on campaigning against the EU. After the referendum in 1975, the campaign against membership was relaunched as soon as 1976.
Secondly, any debate needs to be honest. If a candidate knowingly makes false allegations about his opponent in a general election, there is redress available afterwards, as Phil Woolas discovered. But we saw that, in the behaviour of the campaigns for and against the Alternative Vote, a referendum campaign makes adherence to the facts much harder to enforce. A referendum on Europe conducted under a cloud of lies and misinformation would not serve its ostensible purpose of empowering the British people, and we can see from the false claims made by the eurosceptics already how they would intend to fight such a campaign.
The European Movement supports British membership of the European Union and argues the case for more democracy, effectiveness and accountability. A substantial set of reforms to the existing EU treaties might well merit a referendum. But until then, we should work to make the European Union work better, rather than setting a course for the exit door.Author : European Movement UK