The issue of Britain’s membership of the European Union has bedevilled British politics since the 1960s. There was the initial failures to gain entry into the Common Market during the 1960s largely because Charles de Gaulle said ‘non’. Then there was the final agreement to enter under Heath’s government in 1973 and a referendum confirming this decision by a significant majority in 1975. Why people voted in favour of the EU in 1975 was a combination of things: for some who had been fought or been brought up in the aftermath of the Second World War, it was about establishing European security; for others in was about the potential for British economic development within a free trade area, a truly ‘common market’; what it was not for the overwhelming majority of people was support for a federal vision of Europe and therein lies the problem. As the EU expanded, the argument for greater federalism became stronger, reinforced by the introduction of the euro while Britain stubbornly held on to its notion of the EU as a free market for Britain’s goods. The result has been an increasing mismatch between what Britain wants from the EU and what the overwhelming majority of countries now in the EU want. While Britain’s economy was growing, despite calls from some for withdrawal, had there been a referendum on continued membership it is likely that it would have been won. The benefits of membership outweighed its disadvantages but the banking crisis after 2008 changed that. Britain had become increasingly sceptical about the EU and the unwillingness of the Labour government to do what it promised in terms of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, a fundamental constitutional change in all but name and the chaos within the euro-zone reinforced this.
Not only do we now have a mismatch between the political classes in Britain and the developing European project but we also have a growing mismatch between the views of the general public and the political classes who appear unwilling to do what the public has long called for, a referendum on the issue. This is hardly surprising since the three main political parties in Britain are all committed, in one way or another, to continued membership of the EU with only UKIP taking the alternative view. The mainstream politicians do not like referendums unless they know they will get the answer they want and this explains why, despite fulsome promises in the past, no government since 1975 has been willing to carry their promises into practice. In fact, many argue that referendums do not sit well with representative government: we elect politicians every five years on the basis of their manifestos and if we do not like what they do we have the opportunity to vote them out at the next election. But Europe has become such a corrosive issue within all political parties, despite the focus on divisions within the Conservative party, that a referendum on Europe now seems almost inevitable in the next five years.
The difficulty is what will the referendum be about. Broadly, the political classes and the public generally fall into one of three positions on Europe: those who want to leave; those who want to re-negotiate membership but want to remain in the EU; and those who take a more federalist stance. Those who want to leave call for an in-out referendum to settle the issue; those who want to re-negotiate are willing to accept a referendum on the terms agreed; while those with a federalist position want no referendum at all. As David Cameron prepares or revises his speech on the EU, the harbingers of doom have emerged from the woodwork with the American government, British business leaders, politicians ‘close’ to the German Chancellor and today Michael Heseltine all warning about the consequences of leaving or re-negotiating Britain’s place in Europe. But, as committed Europeans, they would say that wouldn’t they just as those in favour of leaving say that this would provides opportunities for Britain to exploit and would not result in an implosion of Britain’s economy.
The critical question is whether re-negotiating Britain’s position in the EU will actually work. Looking at the issue from continental Europe, why should other members of the EU allow Britain to re-negotiate its role at all? European politicians are becoming increasingly and justifiably irritated by Britain’s position and could easily turn round and say you’re either in or out…a view with which I entirely sympathise. Alright, you don’t have to go down the federalist route if that’s what you want to do but, if you want access to the ‘common market’ then you have to accept that this comes with existing obligations. If not, we can do perfectly well without you. So have your in-out referendum and make up your mind.
The problem is that it isn’t as simple as that despite all the rhetoric from UKIP and other politicians. You can’t turn the clock back to 1973 and unpick all those directives, regulations and statutes that have come from Brussels or that have been produced by the British Parliament and if you cannot do this, then concrete links with Europe will remain but without any of the benefits we do gain from membership. Those who seek exit see the issue as one of constitutional sovereignty while those in favour tend to look at the matter from an economic perspective and, of course, both are right. If we do have a referendum and, despite different pronouncements on the issue I am yet to be convinced that we will, whatever the question I have grave doubts that it will resolve the issue: if we voted to leave, then those in favour of remaining will still be calling for this and vice-versa. My own view for what it’s worth is this: we made a decision in 1975 and, despite the way in which the EU has evolved since them, I still think this was the right decision.