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An EU referendum and when?

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.


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  1. If this Bill continues un-amended then individuals like me – a British expat now living in France, whose right to vote expires in three years time, will face a referendum without a vote. A referendum which if it produced a ‘get out’ result, could leave me and thousands like me, in limbo. I have no problem with a referendum as such, but I hope you and others in their Lordships’ House will have some consideration for loyal Brits like me. There a number of important questions:
    When will the politicians distinguish between Voting and Representation?
    When will they ask of the citizen abroad ‘How can we help you? What are your problems? Your needs? Your wishes? How can we support you?’ – That is the true measure of Representation.
    When will the political parties present policies which display a true interest in the citizen abroad?
    When will they lift the 15 year limit on voting? That limit is hardly an encouragement, and does not convey confidence.
    When will Nick Clegg regret saying ‘If you want a vote, vote in the country where you live.’
    When will Lord Lipsey regret saying ‘I will never want you to have the vote for a Westminster MP’?

  2. I agree that a referendum on UK membership is not really a suitable vehicle for such a complex issue. On the other hand the decline in public trust in Parliament is deeply worrying particularly on the hot topics of the EU and immigration. There seems to be a sense that whatever the views of the British public the same policies will continue.

    My impression is that the pro-Europe lobby in the UK has always focused on short-term expediency rather than on the more important “hearts and mind” task. When I voted Yes in 1975 the words I had in mind were “A common market no more, no less”. After Maastricht I became a European citizen without any say on my part since this fundamental change was never discussed at a general election. On the one occasion, 2001 when the EU and the single currency was an issue in a general election the pro-EU lobby did its best to avoid serious discussion. It down played the importance of the decision (a logical extension of the single market), it tried to avoid discussion by promising a referendum and it smeared the opponents of the Euro rather than taking their arguments seriously.

    In that fashion you won most of the battles (apart from the single currency) but lost the war to persuade the UK accept its position in Europe. Had we proceeded like the Irish by referenda it is quite likely we would have been out after Maastrict and now have slightly less effective coordination with our EU partners. But we would have avoided some of the disconnect between parliament and people and also the sourness of our present position.

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