Debates on Europe and the EU are a regular feature in the Parliamentary calendar and rarely get reported beyond the Westminster bubble. Last night’s debate was different as is specifically called for a referendum and prompted the press and public to engage as well. There is of course much anger across the country about the power Brussels has accumulated over the years at the expense of sovereign states and that the British people have been denied a say (via a referendum) in some of the landmark decisions such as confirmation of the Lisbon Treaty.
The debate therefore provided a useful, if basic, litmus test of public opinion and obliged the Government to update the nation on what has changed since the last election as well as plans afoot. Some of the key themes which came out of the debate are as follows:
Firstly considering the motion itself which proposed a referendum offering three choices: a) leave the EU; b) stay as we are; and c) remain in the EU but re-negotiate terms. Given this choice I would select the latter, indeed this chimes not just with the Conservative Party’s views but, from feedback in my postbag,with those of Bournemouth and beyond. Unfortunately, placing three choices in a referendum is confusing. What if 40% voted to leave the EU, 30% voted to remain in and the final 30% voted for change? How would this vote be interpreted?
Secondly, whilst a referendum on our relationship with Europe is long overdue, now is not the right time. As the Euro zone endures its greatest crisis since its creation and searches for fresh solutions, the opportunity to re-evaluate the threshold of power bestowed to Brussels could not be better. If this is achieved, then holding a referendum would be not just appropriate, but thanks to new legislation (brought in to avoid a repeat of Labour’s bluff over the Lisbon Treaty) it would be necessary by law.
Thirdly, the prospect of holding a referendum during the current economic crisis would bring further uncertainty to employers and businesses, just at a time when stability is sought. With around half our exports and imports linked to the mainland it would be irresponsible for a government to jeopardise our recovery and put jobs at risk. We, Britain are the leading advocates for change in the EU – what signal would that send to other countries now beginning to think our way if we announced our intention to jump ship?
Fourthly, regarding those (around 34% according to last week’s BPIX poll) who want to leave the EU immediately, what type of working relationship would we seek? Similar to that of Norway where we are still in the European Economic Area and still paying towards the EU budget but without any say on future reform, budgets or treaties? Such a relationship would not only damage business prospects in general but specifically affect our financial sector who would very likely depart London for Paris or Frankfurt.
It does seem as if we Conservatives have been banging our heads against a brick wall in calling for powers in Brussels to be returned to Sovereign states and the British public cannot be criticised for being disillusioned with the European Union - with most venom directed at the Lisbon Treaty, where we were denied a referendum, despite the promise made by the then Labour Government.
However, the current euro zone crisis is proving to be an enormous wakeup call about the limitations of what the EU can achieve and should do. Monetary union without greater fiscal integration has not worked - it is essentially the end of the line for those who have supported (and succeeded) in empowering Brussels over the last three decades. This is the time to show some leadership and not run away, a time to rally the call for a less federal model for Europe and hold that referendum when a firm proposal to repatriate powers is on the table.