In or out? Britain's EU dilemma
by our secret columnist in Brussels
Schadenfreude considers how the British government might set out the arguments for and against the country's withdrawal from the EU if it held the in/out referendum that many are calling for
There is nothing except the internal politics of the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition to prevent the British government from calling a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should remain a member of the European Union. A majority in the Conservative party is probably in favour of an in or out referendum. But their Lib Dem partners would oppose the idea in the light of opinion polls suggesting there would be a large no vote.
In announcing a popular vote on membership, the Conservative leadership would be expected to explain why it thinks such a move is necessary. Unless there were, at the time, some particular issue dividing the UK from the EU majority the party would need to show why continuing membership was no longer in the British interest. It would recommend an 'out' vote and campaign accordingly in the run up to polling day.
In doing so, it would set out what would be lost and what gained. It would itemise greater independence from 'Brussels rule' and cash savings, but with allowance for the cost of the transfer of agricultural support from the EU budget to the British exchequer. It would confidently predict that – like for example Norway – membership of the European Economic Area would be available, ensuring the continuation of free trade with EU members and access to the single market in goods, services and the movement of people.
On the other side of the ledger it would necessarily remark that access to the single market requires the maintenance of supporting regulations already in force, plus the adoption without consultation of new measures in this regard. New measures already in view include financial regulations that the British government largely opposes. It would probably be part of the withdrawal negotiations for the British government to seek exemption from everything in, or to be in, the Maastricht Social Protocol from which John Major's government opted out while Tony Blair's government opted in. This, incidentally, is already an unfulfilled manifesto commitment.
It would have to set out how much as a non-member it would expect to pay – like Norway, but scaled up – towards the administration of the single market and as a contribution to cohesion programmes that benefit the less prosperous members of the union. It might undertake to seek a limit on immigration from EU member states but this touches one of the fundaments of the union and would be monumentally difficult to obtain. There would need to be a new fisheries agreement with the EU on access to British waters and reciprocal facilities controlled by the Common Fisheries Policy. None of this would be easy going.
Outside the EU the British government would seek to negotiate free trade agreements with the string of countries with which the EU has already concluded negotiations, and to catch up with any new deals. It would hope to obtain the same terms but the market incentive that it would offer would be significantly downgraded. Its defence commitments in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation would be unchanged but it would not be part of the still embryonic common foreign policy, which is no great loss. It would probably want to maintain the European Arrest Warrant as a weapon against terrorism but would not otherwise proceed with judicial co-operation.
The campaign would be rhetorical and the downside would be lost in the hymns to sovereignty, independence, national pride, "a thousand years of history". An honest government would try to maintain some balance but since it had called the referendum it would do everything to avoid the humiliation of losing. Harold Wilson in 1975 unprecedentedly split cabinet solidarity to win his referendum on membership. The writing is on the wall.
Voting in EU referendums - is it worth the shoe leather?
As we approach another EU referendum in Ireland on the fiscal compact and Britain debates whether to hold an in/out vote, our secret columnist asks whether such public ballots ever result in any meaningful change and if anything – including a 'no' vote – can stop the European project from rolling on