In our last post, we spoke to Matthew Elliott of the TaxPayers’ Alliance about a possible referendum on EU membership in the UK. Today, we’ll be looking at the same issue from a different perspective; this time we’re talking to Petros Fassoulas, chairman of the European Movement UK, an organisation calling for closer integration at the EU level.
Although it’s far from certain that there will be an EU referendum in Britain, the government’s signals on the issue have been nothing if not confusing:
Before we consider the likely results of any referendum, however, it might be interesting to ask what the effects might be on Europe as a whole. Nikolai, for example, sent us in a comment asking: “If the UK did hold a referendum and leave, how long before other national governments would be forced to do the same by a public egged on by some very strong nationalist parties across the EU?”
How would Mr Fassoulas respond?
Well, a referendum will certainly strengthen the hand of those right-wing nationalist factions in some member-states. It will give them a framework to argue that: ‘If country x can do it, we can do it ourselves.’ But I don’t think it will have a massive impact on most member-states, because the vast majority of the EU population, and certainly the mainstream of politicians in Europe, are pro-European. It will strengthen the hand of nationalists, but it won’t lead to the break-up of the EU.
Isn’t there also an argument that a British exit wouldn’t lead to the break-up of the EU because the UK is one of the largest member-states in the Union, and would therefore still be a global player independently? Smaller member-states might be more reluctant to strike out alone for this reason. We had, for example, the following comment sent in from Phoenix One UK: “The UK possesses one of the largest economies in the world. It is in the G8, the OECD, the WTO, the World Bank, and the UN Security Council. We are leading members of NATO and of the Commonwealth… The idea that without the EU the UK would be isolated is not just wrong. It is absurd.“
I think this kind of view demonstrates a lack of understanding of how this new globalised world we live in operates. Several of the institutions mentioned were put together in the post-World War era, and the world has changed significantly since then. The UN Security Council, for example, is not what it used to be, and the situation in Syria demonstrates that the UK can’t do much against Russia and China. Meanwhile, the WTO has been unable to conclude a trade negotiation round for a significant amount of time, and we shouldn’t forget that the UK is consistently dropping in the rankings of world economies, slowly being bypassed by other countries.
We need to stop thinking about where we used to be, and start thinking about where we will be 20 years from now. I can guarantee that the UK will not be a world power in 20 years, not because its importance will have decreased, but because the relative importance of so many other countries is increasing. The more we obsess about where we used to be, the more we risk missing the boat.
Then, of course, there is the question of the upcoming referendum on Scottish independence in 2014. Hans sent us in the following comment: “The UK is a democratic country, so let their people decide… But there should also be another democratic option: if the Scots, the Welsh or the Northern-Irish want to leave the UK and join the EU as a separate state, they should be able to do that as well.“
In some ways, the question of Scottish independence is a double-edged sword, and I’ll take my pro-European hat off for a moment to respond to Hans. On the one side, a possible departure will, in effect, reduce the size of the UK, not just in geographical terms but also in terms of resources and capabilities, so it will make a lot of people think twice about how viable their country might be outside of the EU. However, on the other hand, considering that a lot of the pro-EU vote would come from places like Scotland, there would potentially be less pro-Europeans left in the UK (or England, or whatever you would call this new state) to vote in favour of continued membership. So, it will be an interesting psychological and statistical exercise to see how this plays out.
Finally, if we imagine there will be an “In / Out” referendum on EU membership in the next parliament, then does a referendum on EU membership mean an automatic vote for “Out”?
Well, a lot depends on how the question is posed. There are those who advocate for a clear ‘In’ or ‘Out’ referendum, and there are those that argue that first the government should ask for a mandate to renegotiate powers from the EU, followed by a referendum on whether to accept those new membership terms or whether to leave the EU altogether.
If we have a situation where the government fails to renegotiate, it would be very dangerous, especially as it is very difficult to define exactly what a successful renegotiation would entail. On top of that, why should the other nations agree to renegotiate and unravel the treaties? The government will have to come back and say we didn’t succeed, and the chances of an ‘In’ vote in any referendum following that failure would be greatly reduced. This promise of a renegotiation is therefore a false one, it is counter-productive and it will result in a lose-lose situation.
What do YOU think? Without Scotland, would the UK still be a global player outside the EU? Even with Scotland, does the UK still wield the kind of influence it used to? Or will it have to accept a gradual decline in status over the coming decades? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below, and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.
Petros Fassoulas is the chairman of the European Movement UK, a not-for-profit, independent and all party organisation that calls for closer integration at the EU level.