Many commentators have discussed at length the ‘awkward relationship’ the United Kingdom has with the European Union. More and more the UK’s place in this 28-member Union is entering the political discussion across the British Isles.
James Wharton MP of the Conservative Party proposed a bill regarding a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU as a Private Members’ Bill in 2013. And as the bill undergoes its second reading in the House of Lords, there is speculation among analysts as to what will become of the bill. But I don’t want to discuss the novelties of the House of Lords, and the likelihood of it getting through the upper chamber without being radically changed; what I want to do here is address the rising call for a UK referendum and why both the UK and the EU are finding themselves in a position where a definitive answer to UK membership is increasingly necessary, and why Britons in support of the EU need to combat the preponderance of Euroscepticism in the media of the UK.
Even more recently, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne, made headlines in the UK by announcing that “The UK could be forced to quit the European Union if [it] does not reform” (Source: BBC). This is in-line with the UK’s rhetoric to harness more leverage in the EU, while still attempting to maintain its uncooperative affiliation with the organisation. Hence, it’s becoming more and more obvious that a discussion needs to be had between these two parties about the future of the UK in the EU.
Ultimately, the UK needs to redefine its membership of the EU, for the sake of the UK and of the EU. David Cameron argues that Britain needs to have an even more disconnected role within Europe. And I do not think that this is the right direction for either Europe or Britain. The UK’s commitment to the European Project is quite half-hearted to start with – and I can’t see Brussels granting more accommodations and exceptions for the UK, or „opt-outs“ as they are known in political discourse – especially at a time when the impetus is clearly towards further integration. With the amount of concessions this island nation has, it’d be hard to imagine that the Prime Minister genuinely believes that he wants to explore the possibility of bargaining for more.
If the direction is indeed towards further integration, then the United Kingdom, as a member state, has the right to contribute to the discussion about the future of Europe. This may mean that the Union may lose its third largest member if the course the EU is taking is too asynchronous with British interests: further opt-outs are fundamentally at odds with European integration and unlikely to happen. Continued membership of the EU, for the UK, would likely call for further integration.
One of the tools that liberal democracies have to address such issues is through referenda. However, a ‘yes’ vote in a referendum would potentially be as constitutionally radical as a ‘no’ vote. For the resulting effects of the referendum to have more legitimacy, I would argue therefore, that the public debate would have to take this tone. While framing the debate in this way, of further integration, may be at odds with the dominant anti-European rhetoric in the British media, the British mustn’tmistake the debate as being ‘status quo’ versus withdrawal.
Merely suggesting having a referendum on membership of the EU is in itself dangerous, not just politically. While those advocating a public poll aim to cast opposition to a referendum as undemocratic, it is important to acknowledge the damage of uncertainty of the UK in the context of the EU, in terms of international relations and in global economics, which in turn have an impact on the citizens of Britain. It is safe to say that the country’s membership of the EU is at best cantankerous, but for the time being investors and international actors work under the assumption that the UK will remain, for the foreseeable future, a member of the EU. A referendum debate would undermine this security: producing a situation where observers would be unable to approach the UK in the context of remaining a member, albeit in an awkward position, or the UK as a global player in the unique position of not being a part of an economic bloc. Broadly speaking, this seems to be the position the Labour Party takes on the matter.
Even if the UK committed to having a referendum, an ‘out’ result would have near-incalculable consequences. Outside of the EU, the UK will no doubt face issues in negotiating (and renegotiating) numerous international treaties; with no guarantee that the agreements reached will be better than the current arrangement of these deals made by the EU (made, of course, with the UK), representing a union of 28 states. With no guarantees or vision, and a wholly idealistic idea of a Britain “going it alone”, a ‘no’ campaign would have a hard time providing an argument of certainty and security, without descending into xenophobic appeals.
So what is the UK to do? The politicians need to address the issue if the UK is to have a real influence in the EU as it furthers its integration. Hence, granting the EU more competences in order to aid further integration would not reflect too well on the UK, at least in the short-term, and is not likely to wash well with the current political discourse in the country. It is unthinkable that the current politicians would want to swallow this medicine.
Another alternative is to attempt to try and rein the EU back so as to make the arrangement more convenient for the UK. By being obstinate, the UK did win its latest opt-out from the European Stability Mechanism pact. Commentators, however, would point to this as the UK encouraging a ‘two speed’ Europe, undermining the nature of the European Project. The Conservatives are, arguably, attempting to achieve this change through institutional means. For instance, within the European Parliament, through the creation of the European Conservatives and Reformists party group in 2009, the Conservatives are attempting this very thing. However, with unfashionable ‘bed-fellows’, in this group, the Tories are unlikely to make much ground.
The UK finds itself in a difficult Catch 22 situation.