by the Rt Hon Baroness Joyce Quin, Vice-President of the European Movement UK///
There has been much discussion recently in the press and elsewhere about whether or not an in/out referendum on our membership of the EU should take place and, if so, when such a referendum could or should be held.
Last Friday in the House of Lords a Private Members’ Bill – which has recently passed through the House of Commons – received its second reading and was debated extensively. This bill calls for a referendum on our EU membership which “must be held before 31st December 2017”. Opinions are understandably divided about whether such a referendum is desirable or necessary and there are also questions about the role of referendums themselves in our essentially parliamentary democracy. Speaking for myself I have been concerned that referendums seem to be becoming part of our system of government on an “ad hoc” and not properly thought out basis and that it would be best to have a debate in and out of Parliament to try to get a consensus about when and in what circumstances referendums should be used. Furthermore, as is often pointed out, referendums often do not resolve issues. If circumstances change, and if public opinion changes, pressure builds up for further referendums to be held. Nonetheless opinion polls show that the public is in favour of a Europe referendum and it may well turn out that a referendum on this subject is held in the foreseeable future.
The timing envisaged in the bill of “before 31st December 2017” was however questioned by many in the House of Lords. It was pointed out that the government wished to embark on a renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU and secure reforms in the way the organisation worked. However if this renegotiation were not finalised by the end of 2017 it would seem silly to have a referendum before the details of it were known. It was also pointed out that Britain would be holding the Presidency of the EU at that time and there would also be national elections in both France and Germany, which could complicate and possibly delay the negotiating timetable. More fundamentally 2017 would be after the next general election in Britain –in 2015 – which might bring a different government to power and in any case at that time a new Parliament would have been elected which might have different view on when or if a referendum should be held. After all it is well understood that “Parliament cannot bind its successor”.
There is no doubt too that, according to CBI surveys, many firms in Britain, employing people in all parts of the country, are concerned that raising the prospect of a referendum without any certainty about whether or exactly when it would be held will create economic difficulties and in particular will deter inward investors from coming to the UK. I am particularly aware of this in my own part of the country, the North-East, where the world-beating productive Nissan car plant, established in Sunderland in order to have access to Europe’s single market, is a major employer. Nissan has clearly expressed its worries both about the uncertainty the current referendum debates have created as well as their fears that Britain could leave the EU as a result.
If a referendum is eventually decided on however what is absolutely essential is that there should be a good, full and open public debate beforehand. The opportunity will have to be taken to explode once and for all some of the Euromyths and inaccuracies which have plagued public discussions of this issue. Myths such as the oft-repeated claim that decisions in Europe are forced on us by unelected bureaucrats whereas in reality final decisions are taken by the Council of Ministers comprising all the European Governments, with the elected European Parliament also having a role. Myths such as the claim that Britain only joined a free trade area in 1973, whereas the truth is that we already belonged to a free trade area (EFTA) and the EU or European Community in contrast was always (as the debates in Parliament and the Press at the time clearly showed) a more ambitious organisation with other common policies and a pooling of sovereignty in specific areas.
I hope too that a wide public debate will allow some of the successes of the EU to be celebrated rather than simply concentrating on the areas where more reform is needed. Successes such as the enlargement to the countries of Central and Eastern Europe (whose cause has been championed by the UK) and who have, through this process, consolidated their freedom and democracy and have also, in many cases, made huge economic progress which has in turn benefitted us all. Successes too such as many areas of European environmental policies, or regional policies, or development policies which have helped secure significant and beneficial changes in some of the hitherto poorest nations of our world. Successes such as purposeful joint action in tackling cross border crime and achieving justice for EU citizens.
Finally a lot of answers need to be given to Parliament and the public before a referendum is held. The present government has been reticent so far about the details of its proposed renegotiation. While we know that it favours further completion of Europe’s single market to promote trade and jobs we also need answers as to whether or not – and to what extent – it continues to want to work within the EU on environment, development, regional and home affairs policies.
The fullest information both about how the EU actually works and what government – and the other political parties – want to see happen in the future is needed. The public should expect – and certainly deserves – nothing less.