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Now is not the time for an EU referendum

October 24, 2011

Just back from the Commons chamber where I witnessed for over two hours the spectacle of the Prime Minister and then the Foreign Secretary walking the tightrope between economic reality and their Tory backbenchers’ political posturing.

I am a keen supporter of the European Union.  I have always wanted Britain to be an active and positive member.  In every election I’ve stood in I’ve never hid the fact that I’m an ardent Europhile.  So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I will not be supporting the motion before MPs tonight that we should have a referendum on the EU.

I was 8 years old when the country last had a referendum on Europe so I have no real recollection of the campaign.  But in the years since there has been a concerted effort by people on the losing side in that referendum to have another go.  An unholy alliance of left wing members of the Labour Party, right wing Tories and Ulster Unionists have never accepted Britain’s membership of the EU.  Two things have changed in the last 36 years.   We’ve had the political entertainment value of the United Kingdom Independence Party.  But more significant has been the mainstreaming of Euroscepticism within the Tory Party.

Some of that repositioning away from the party of Edward Heath is probably a political response to UKIP, rivals to the Tories on the right of British politics.  But Euroscepticism now appears to be the norm among Tory MPs.  I’ve met many of them newly elected in 2010 who are socially liberal and in favour of free markets, good grounds for being a Lib Dem if it weren’t for their hostility to the EU. Some new Tory MPs are outright Europhobes, open about their desire for Britain to quit the EU.  Many seem to willing the collapse of the Euro currency, an utterly reckless stance totally at odds with Britain’s national interest.

The motion that I will vote against at 10pm tonight calls for a three option referendum.  The questions would be whether Britain should:

A) remain a member of the European Union on the current terms;

B) leave the European Union; or

C) re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation.

A large number of the Tory and Labour MPs proposing this motion are of course really in favour of option B but say they want to try option C.  But this third option throws up so many questions that it fails the basic test of a referendum question, giving people a clear and fundamental choice.  It suggests the possibility that Britain could retrospectively opt out of a selection (which ones?) of treaties and directives that successive British governments and Parliaments have agreed.  It implies that we would stay in the EU but be more like Norway and Switzerland, which are outside.  It’s a question that leads to lots of other questions rather than a clear answer about Britain’s future.

The three questions throw up another conundrum.  Suppose 34% supported A and 33% supported options B and C.  Does anyone really believe that the Eurosceptics would give up at that point?  As William Hague said this afternoon, we’ve just rejected AV in a referendum so the people who want this three party question can hardly demand it in a Euro referendum.

But the most compelling reason for this motion to be rejected is its irrelevance to our current situation.  Britain’s economy is growing very weakly.  Our most significant trading partners, the Eurozone members, are on the brink of a crisis.  Economic turmoil in the rest of Europe would be disastrous for Britain.  It’s within the Ministerial meetings in the EU that the British national interest can be best served.  It’s by pressing for a widening of the single market, sweeping away remaining barriers to intra-EU trade, that Britain and the rest of the EU can return to growth.

Part of me would relish a straight in or out referendum.  I would enjoy arguing for a Yes vote in Bristol West.  But the time for that is not now, there are more pressing European matters to be resolved.  If the EU does have a fundamental change through a new treaty then that would be the right time to have a public vote.  And that is now guaranteed as a result of the European Union Act 2011.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs have profoundly different attitudes to Britain’s place in Europe.  But the Coalition Government Agreement provides for a referendum on any future major treaty that transfers powers to the EU.  We are not at that juncture right now and that’s why I will not be supporting the motion.



13 Comments leave one →
  1. a smith permalink
    October 24, 2011 7:42 pm

    you are a disgrace and you are putting your own preferences above the people

  2. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    October 24, 2011 8:16 pm

    I remember the last referendum. I voted to stay in the Common Market because it made sense to make trade easier. Being young and niave, I accepted when I was told it would not lead to a closer politcal union and still believed that politicians acted in the best interest of the people of this country and not persued their own political ambitions. It would take far too long to list all those things that have happened between then and now, but lets just say I’v been sold down the river by people far more intested in their ownselves than mine.

  3. October 24, 2011 8:26 pm

    well Paul, as I said in my piece, I’ve never hidden the fact that I’m a Europhile from the electors of Bristol West. In fact, I’ve ignored Lib Dem campaigns HQ advice to say as little as possible about the EU as it wouldn’t be popular…

  4. Philip Morris permalink
    October 24, 2011 9:03 pm

    As one whom believed Tony Benn and voted OUT of the Common Market in 1975, my thoughts and miss-givings have been proved correct.
    1/. We lost our fishing rights to the Spanish and the French. (Just look at how many fishing boats at Newyln are owned and registered in Spain.
    2/. Look at the French and Germans with ‘competative tendering’ they still manage to keep all their own Countries Police, Fire and Amblance vehicles made in their own respective Countries.
    3/. Are the French or Germans competative tendering their new trains, NO but the U.K. does and puts thousends of U.K. workers out of work so that the Germans can build our trains.
    All teh E.U. and continued membership has brought is is mass importation of goods thyat we would could have built.
    4/. As an ex merchant seaman – I witnessed the French at their import game, en-route from Japan with Micro waves, Hi-Fi’s, etc.. we would be re-routed to differing posts as the French changed the customs regulations (e.g. only Micro-wave ovens could be imported through one port, they would then open every box and check that the instructions were in French, we would then have to re-load containers and go to another port for the unloading of Hi-Fi only to find out that the Hi Fis could only be unloaded on Tuesdays and Fridays.
    In the end Japan, sorted it all out by building plants in England so that they could go stright into France without hindrence.
    Where are all those Japaneese funded plants now ?

    Stephen I have always voted Liberal and then Liberal Democrat and still will do in the Local Elections, BUT not for Parliament as you have shown yourselves not to have courage nor conviction, over many issues from cutting the Armed Forces, Votes for Prisoners and now this debarcle, YOU were elected to REPRESENT THE VOTERS not yourself, Get out of Parliament and get a real job, no doubt there is a Bank/International Company waiting to give you a job, not on your merit – but because you will know who’s palm to grease.

    I have copied this and will present it to Barbra Janke whom I have known for many many years

    • October 25, 2011 9:53 am

      well the voters of Bristol West gave UKIP their lowest vote in the country so I don’t think my views are widely out of step with my constituents. As to courage of my convictions, I was one of 22 MPs who voted to allow some prisoners to vote, despite the hostility to this view from the press. If that’s not demonstrating courage of my convictions perhaps you could suggest an alternative definition.

  5. Rob permalink
    October 25, 2011 8:52 am

    Yet another example of a Lib Dem election pledge not maintained. You are the one walking a tightrope – and the majority of Bristol West can’t wait for you to fall off at the next election. Is it not the right time to uphold your pledge on tuition fees? Is it not the right time to protect the Nhs from break up? Is it not the right time to invest in economic growth? It always seems to be the right time for your chutzpah and self-justification of your new Tory friends. The sad thing is that whilst lots of us agree with your real views, no one trusts you anymore to actually fight for them.

  6. October 25, 2011 10:32 am

    Rob – please have another look at the last 7 lines of the blog. The Coalition Agreement provided for a referendum and that agreement has now been enacted. If there is a new treaty transferring power to the EU, there will be a referendum.

  7. anonymous permalink
    October 25, 2011 11:40 am

    Do you think the EU would be more popular in the UK if the cost-benefits of membership were more favourable to the UK?

    In the last four quarters the UK transferred £10bn to the EU net of the amount received.^ This is about 0.6% of GDP, or about a tenth of the amount currently spent on education, or alternatively, about 20 times as much as the government saved by scraping the EMA.

    Today the IFS also released a report saying that expenditure on education in the UK will be cut in real terms by 1.8% of GDP (~£28bn) over the course of the parliament.$

    Would it not make more sense to transfer less to Europe and invest more in our own children?

    Might a referendum on EU membership strengthen the governments hand in negotiations over future spending and transfers within the EU?


    • rosemary permalink
      October 25, 2011 11:15 pm

      I don’t think it is just a question of money, anonymous one, in much the same way that people’s opposition to mass immigration is not just a question of jobs and housing, etc. However much the establishment has tried to browbeat and even criminalise them out of it, they still have an instinct in favour of their own nation, and a wish to preserve its identity and its independence. Curiously, the establishment is all in favour of this when it is being sentimental about certain other countries, just not when it is England. They hate it so much, that they want it obliterated.

  8. Paul Bemmy Down permalink
    October 25, 2011 3:25 pm

    Stephen. You have not hidden the fact you are a Europhile and thats to your credit, but I,m sure the country is turning against Europe. This continual denial of letting the people express an opinion, will make them even more anti. I think it’s a difficult time for you Lib/Dems. You seem to have alienated your own voters over things like tuition fees and at the same time, got on the wrong side of the populous arguement over Europe!

  9. robertjessetelford permalink
    October 27, 2011 4:50 pm

    I think you’re probably right to vote against, but not for the reasons you give.

    You can claim yours is a cavalier attitude (in comparison to your party), but really most things are these days with you guys, eh?

    I think this is true: “Many issues currently decided at the EU level should be dealt with at a more appropriate level for effective action, which might be local, national or global.”

    It’s not just the right-wingers and the liberals who think we need to change our involvement in the EU…

    • October 27, 2011 6:38 pm

      I agree with your quotation, which I assume is Green policy but actually has been said by me and Lib Dem colleagues many times. Not sure what you mean by my cavalier attitude but I’ll bank the fact that you think I’m probably right on something….

  10. November 11, 2011 7:50 pm

    I think you are being a bit unfair talking about UKIP as being a comedy party. Despite all the disadvantages of being a minor party (which a LibDem should recognise) they got 16% at the last Euro elections, more than Labour and the LibDems. They will get my vote at the next Euro election – for the first time – and I think a lot of people will join me in registering their disgust at the deeply undemocratic nature of both the EU and the way UK politicians have consistently denied the people a say in a referendum.

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