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Wednesday, December 07, 2011

And the question would be....?

This week has seen the mandatory flare-up over the question of an EU referendum, following a remark by Ian Duncan Smith that any major EU Treaty would need to go to a referendum in Britain. For the Coalition it was most unfortunate that Nick Clegg, on the same day, was seen to say the opposite. Only thing was of course that he didn’t quite do that.

Both were actually expressing merely what was in the EU Act or referendum lock – and government policy - though IDS clearly failed to qualify his remarks. That is, any major new Treaty that has an impact on the UK will be subject to a referendum. There’s a lot one can say about the Treaty changes that Sarkozy and Merkel are pushing for, but one thing is for certain: they won’t have an impact on the UK in the sense that new powers will flow from London to Brussels, in contrast to what happened under the Lisbon Treaty or treaties before it. It merely creates a new set of arrangements for the eurozone.

Now, before you start to jump up and down, hear us out. The Treaty changes in combination with the ongoing eurozone crisis, do have an impact on Britain’s position in Europe in that they will create a more tightly knit eurozone bloc, to which Britain’s interests could become secondary. It’s this point that should and does concern most Tory backbenchers - very few of them are actually actively calling for a referendum at this point. And think about it: what would the question be? Something like:

"Do you think that the UK should accept EU Treaty changes which would allow the eurozone to integrate further and introduce measures to enhance budget discipline, which will not impact legally on Britain in the sense that new powers will be transferred from the UK to Brussels, but which could potentially lead to the eurozone voting as a caucus to the detriment of UK influence in Europe?" Yes/No

Hardly credible. Instead, the referendum would, in effect, be on membership of the EU (as it effectively asks voters to consider the current structure and direction of the EU as nothing has changed legally or institutionally for the UK, albeit a very significant political change). Option 2 would be to attach specific demands on EU reform and re-negotiation. The latter option could involve, say, the UK Government putting in a series of demands for repatriation or for vetoes to be restored. Subject to a successful conclusion of the negotiations involving those demands, the package, including the new budget rules for the eurozone, would be put to the British people in a validating referendum. It wouldn't exactly be a swift process but, minus all the complications involved in lengthy negotiations over Treaty changes at a time when the eurozone is on its knees, it could generate the kind of EU that the UK wants.

Now, there are a whole range of reasons why people might want to support one of those two paths - including the fact that people are understandably fed up about not having had a say on Europe for so long - but we need to be honest about what the consequences and political implications are. Either the exit door, or fundamental re-negotiations - that's probably what a lot of people want - but it wouldn't merely be a vote on the Treaty change per se. But for all the shouting in the press over a referendum over the last few days, it's absolutely amazing that no one has bothered to ask the question, what should the referendum actually be on.

This is not to say that the UK Government should not ask for concessions in Europe and start to embark on a reform programme aimed at reversing the flow of powers - we've been arguing that case for years. But if Britain wants to turn the EU into a 'network rather than a bloc' as Cameron reiterated in the Times today (which is the right vision), it needs, collectively, to be a bit smarter and think a bit deeper about the way forward.

* Update 1.16pm: Apparently, both London Mayor Boris Johnson and Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson have now called for a referendum on Treaty changes involving all 27 member states - this is clearly becoming increasingly difficult for Cameron to manage. As ever, the nature of the referendum in question remains unclear, which is also what makes the issue so hard to manage...

8 comments:

Rollo said...

Should the UK leave the EU? Yes or no.

Anonymous said...

If it changes to a network rather than a block, how much is that worth in contribution reduction to the EU budget?

Malcolm

Peripatetic Scribe said...

An interesting piece and I personally have no qualms whatsoever on the wording of the suggested referendum question. To me it is 100% understandable and asks a very pertinent question of the electorate and can be answered YES or NO with ease. No traps, no hidden meanings just 'what you read is what you get'. Good stuff.

Idris Francis said...

Sorry, there is a fatal flaw in your analysis - there is no possibility whatever - and I mean WHATEVER - of the EU agreeing to changesin out relationship that would make continued membership acceptable.

Its like staying in the shallows asking - begging - the shark to be reasonable. Sharks do not chang their intentions nor does the EU. The EU was always intended to be a single European State, run by the Franco-German elite of the time. They will not agree to what we want - self-government and a trade relationship because that would be the thin edge of the wedge that would inevitably destroy their Cunning Plan, their positions and their reputations. Though perhals not the personal fortunes they have accrued along the way. Unfortunately.

What these people need is not a new Treaty but prosecution at the International Criminal Court, for what they have done and are continuing to do - laying waste to the economies of an entire Continent, and for the third time. Will we never learn?

tired and emotional said...

The treaty changes will likely involve the imposition of an FTT. Would that trigger Open Europe's definition of powers passing to the EU?

Open Europe blog team said...

Thanks, 'tired and emotional', but no, it would not. It's a stated aim by Merkozy but there's nothing in the proposed treaty changes that would impose a FTT on the UK or change the way that issue would be decided in EU-27. Britain would still have a veto over the FTT, though the eurozone could potentially pursue a FTT at the level of 17. This could still have a negative impact on the city though, just as a tax change in the US could have a negative impact on UK firms doing business there - but that's a slightly different issue.

tired and emotional said...

Let's say an FTT is agreed as part of a treaty between the 27. Cameron doesn't veto. Does that trigger a referendum?

Anonymous said...

Under the 'referendum lock', no, only the removal of the UK veto over EU taxes would trigger a referednum. But if not vetoing an EU tax, that could well be end of the Coalition and possibly Cameron;s leadership tenure. It could also well tip the UK public (and business) over the edge, forcing Britain to leave the EU altogether. So if you happen to belong to the camp that wants the UK to leave the EU, pray that Cameron would be that stupid.