The United Kingdom has always had a troubled relationship with the European Union (and, before that, its predecessor: the European Communities). In 1990, Margaret Thatcher was ousted from power because of deep divisions within her party over European policy, whilst her successor, John Major, never fully recovered from ‘Black Wednesday’ and the UK’s forced ejection from the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM) in 1992. Even Tony Blair, widely seen as a strongly pro-EU Prime Minister, failed to take his country into the single currency. Yet, despite grumblings from both sides of the Channel, never has ‘Perfidious Albion’ seemed quite as close to falling out of the EU as it does today.
Senior Tory politicians are coming under increasing pressure from back-benchers to take a harder public line on the EU. In June, British Prime Minister David Cameron made it clear he was ‘not against referendums on Europe’, whilst the Foreign Secretary, William Hague, told the BBC that there was a ‘powerful case’ for an EU referendum. The former Defence Secretary, Liam Fox, went so far as to argue that ‘life outside the EU holds no terror’ for the UK. Even senior Labour figures (including former EU Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson) are starting to suggest a referendum on continued British membership of the EU might be inevitable.
In the past, we’ve looked at the question of whether the UK should renegotiate powers from the EU (and whether now, with the EU in crisis, is really the right time to do so). We’ve also looked at whether we need referendums on EU membership in other countries. However, over the next few weeks we’re going to be looking in-depth specifically at the UK’s evolving relationship with the EU and, in particular, debating the issue of an EU referendum.
We’ll be looking at the previous experience of referendums in the UK (including the 2011 referendum on the Alternative Vote) and discussing the next likely referendum (the referendum on Scottish independence, which we covered in a previous post here). We hope to interview activists, politicians and commentators from all sides of the debate, and publish their views here for you to comment on.
To kick things off, though, we’ll start by taking a look at the view from outside Blighty. We interviewed Leif Pagrotsky, who was Swedish Minister for Trade (1997-2004) and Minister for Education and Culture (2004-2006). We put a question to him that was sent in from Hari, asking whether it might actually be better for the rest of Europe if the UK finally decided to leave the club:
The UK is a very serious political constraint to the EU project and ever closer union. I think it’d be a net gain for the EU if the UK chose to get out. Opt-out clauses meted out to the UK have not only undermined community objectives, but the UK has worked very closely with Sweden and Denmark to undermine greater fiscal authority of the EU. This will end when the UK gets out of the EU.
As a former Swedish minister (from a country that Hari argues was working with the UK to ‘undermine greater fiscal authority’) how would Mr Pagrotsky respond?
I think the EU is a European project and it should recognise the right of all European peoples to decide what’s in their interests and if they want to participate or not. And maybe the problem was that monetary union started without broad popular support all over the European Union. The time was perhaps not mature, and it became too big, and the construction of the monetary union was not well thought through…
We also had some comments for Mr Pagrotsky about the eurozone crisis in general. Gerry, for example, argued that ‘France and Germany should stop hiding behind the British Euro-sceptic stance‘ and start working towards closer monetary, economic and political integration. Michael, meanwhile, added that Germany and France need to make up their minds whether they want the ‘weaker’ European economies to remain in the eurozone and, if they do want them to stay in, then they should be supporting them through all available means.
In the case of Greece, it seems like [fiscal] tightening alone not only did not solve the problem, but perhaps it even aggravated some parts of the problem. A tightening of the budget, which has enormous implications for domestic demand, must be accompanied by measures that promote growth as well… If they don’t want Greece in, they should say so and then they should facilitate whatever solution they would prefer. If they prefer that Greece leaves, then they should also participate in the solution so that Greece could have a new start outside of the eurozone. But, to be honest, I don’t believe they want Greece to leave; I don’t think they want to expel Greece. I think they want to use this as a kind of threat to make the Greek politicians and the Greek people work harder to solve their own problems.
Finally, Craig argues that the “policy of half-hearted ECB/Council bailouts has thus far led to recession and concurrently lower revenue/worse debt-to-GDP ratios.” How would you respond?
I too think that the fact that European decision-makers – primarily the European Council – have reacted behind-the-curve, only when the situation has become very, very bad [and] have very rarely acted ahead of events [...] has meant that the recession has been deeper, unemployment higher and the crisis prolonged compared to a more resolute and active management of the crisis from the start.
What do YOU think? Is it time for an EU referendum in the UK? Would the UK be better off out, and would the other member-states be rid of a reluctant partner that is more trouble than it’s worth? Or would a break-up just accelerate Europe’s relative decline? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.