ukLast year, Debating Europe spoke to British Conservative MP Peter Lilley about whether the UK should try to renegotiate powers back from Europe. This week, as part of a new series of posts examining Britain’s oft-troubled relationship with the EU, we’re asking not just should but could the UK successfully renegotiate powers. Is renegotiation a realistic option for the UK government? Or is all this loose talk of “clawing powers back” raising false expectations amongst the British public?

Yesterday, we spoke to Matthew Elliot, Chief Executive and Co-Founder of the TaxPayers’ Alliance, to ask him what he thought of an “In / Out” referendum on EU membership in the UK. As Campaign Director for the successful NOtoAV campaign in last year’s referendum on changing the British voting system, Matthew Elliot has first-hand experience of running a national referendum campaign in the UK. We put a couple of your questions to him for his reaction.

First up, Filippo sent in a comment arguing the following: “Let’s put it this way: if the UK is out, then I’m out. There’s no hope for the EU if Britain were to walk out.” Is Filippo right? Would a British exit be the first step towards a total break-up?

In a sense, I can see where Filippo is coming from. I think the issue of Britain’s relationship with the European Union, especially if that relationship changes through a renegotiation or through Britain leaving, calls into question the whole EU project. Everyone will start looking at their specific terms of membership and saying ‘I like this’ or ‘I don’t like this’ in a pick-and-mix fashion. 

However, it is basically now inevitable that there will be a referendum. There are two principle ways it would come about: either the Labour party go for a policy of an ‘In / Out’ referendum, with people like Peter Kellner from YouGov now urging Ed Miliband to do this. The second scenario sees the Conservative party go for a renegotiation strategy, with a pledge to renegotiate powers from Brussels in their next election manifesto, and they then put the results of that to an ‘In / Out’ referendum, hoping that the renegotiation will be good enough and satisfy enough people.

Next, we had a comment from Hans, who sent us in the following: “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.

I think it’s fascinating how, before the financial crisis, part of the pitch of the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Alex Salmond was that Scotland could be like Sweden or Ireland; a smallish European country at home in the EU, with Scotland’s voice in the wider world magnified through the EU. That was quite a strong pitch at the time, particularly as Ireland was doing so well. However, the financial crisis has changed all that, particularly as it was primarily Scottish banks that needed bailing out in 2008, which signaled a change of opinion where they realised they do need the English taxpayer to survive. That’s been one of the key changes. Of course, the Olympics since then also had an impact. Many people liked the fact that Scottish athletes were competing as team GB sportsmen and women. They saw themselves as part of something bigger.

If we imagine there will be an “In / Out” referendum on EU membership in the next parliament, looking at the latest opinion polls, it looks like the “Out” camp would easily sail to victory. Does a referendum on EU membership mean an automatic vote for “Out”?

I wouldn’t see it as clear-cut as that. I’ve studied the 1975 referendum, and if you look at the polling in January before that referendum, the ‘Stay Out’ side were ahead. Harold Wilson went for a renegotiation strategy of our membership, and it was from the renegotiation that the ‘Stay In’ side started to gain ground, until they eventually won.

Although the ‘Get Out’ side does seem to be ahead in the polls today, all it would take would be a sitting Prime Minister to say: ‘There are these specific areas where we will renegotiate powers from Brussels’. I could see the EU perhaps giving a little ground in these areas. We’ve heard it before, with the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP), where Tony Blair came back saying he’d gotten a better deal with the CAP despite essentially coming back empty-handed. The EU is able to do that.

Look back to the veto moment at the European Council last December. David Cameron was certain he’d vetoed things and been strong, and what you saw was not only a bounce in his popularity but also a collapse in the polls of support for UKIP. People who were perhaps leaning towards UKIP suddenly thought: ‘Actually, we don’t need UKIP. We have a strong Prime Minister who is looking out for our interests.’ Similarly, if all the party leaders were making some noise about a successful renegotiation, then the ‘Stay In’ side would gain traction from that.

How important, then, would any renegotiation of the UK’s relationship with the EU be?

It will be absolutely key. One of the big differences between now and 1975, however, is that politicians have cried wolf so often that there’s very little trust there. There’s the fact that Cameron didn’t really deliver on his ‘cast-iron guarantee’ of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty; he stuck to the small print, but that eroded trust. Even if you look at the expenses scandal, it’s all eroded trust and fed into the current anti-politics mood. It would have to be pretty convincing renegotiation to satisfy the public.

What do YOU think? Could the UK successfully renegotiate powers back from Brussels, or would that just lead to a rush of other member-states also wanting to repatriate powers for themselves? Would a successful renegotiation “shoot the fox” of British euroscepticism, or is all this talk of reclaiming powers setting the government up for an impossible task? Let us know your thoughts and comments in the form below and we’ll take them to policy-makers and experts for their reactions.

Image Credits: CC / Flickr – Rock Cochen and Andy Houghton

40 comments Post a commentcomment

  1. avatar
    Carmen Turturea

    The UK reclaiming powers from the EU will be successful and the example will be followed by other Member States

  2. avatar
    Jaroslav Kuna

    No, it could not. Very soon, Britain will have to choose between EU with all its pros and cons, or simply leave. With Scotland highly potentially parting it and (re)joining the EU.

    • avatar
      Stephen Pockley

      What Pros are they exactly.we have only cons.Scotland will not leave the UK you are very much mis informed.

  3. avatar
    Steve Patriarca

    Poland for sure would be very wise to abandon its plans to join the Euro. Its economy is relatively strong given the history. Czech Republic another relative success story should renegotiate over its commitment to join the Euro and keep its own currency. That said what we really need is a common market, or free trade zone rather than the hectic mesh of restrictive practices created by Stalinists and supported by the political mediocrities we have in the Parliament. Transport, the media, real estate, the Channel Tunnel…all woudl benefit form a liberal free market.

  4. avatar
    Steve Patriarca

    Many EU countries never surrendered the powers in the first place! eg here in Austria you cannot get a residency permit unless you have a job or income and health insurance. Of course EU citizens do not need a Visa but they do need to be solvent. It is only really the UK which has open access.

    • avatar
      Stephen Pockley

      Not for much longer ,we need to leave the EU

  5. avatar
    Pierre Olivier

    This is certainly the first step to the entry of UK to the CEEE or another association agreement and that is a kind of soft UK exit. UK will be marginalized in the continental policy giving the opportunity of a European political kernel of state. And the ironical thing could be the accession of Scotland to the EU and the euro one as an in dependant state whereas UK is quitting the EU.

  6. avatar
    Morag Keith

    It seems to me that the UK still lives in some fantasy world in which they are a major power. If the UK holds a referendum – it would be in or out – and the rest of Europe would be happy to have the position clarified. They certainly would not feel that it undermined the rest of the EU. The EU stands for so much more now and the other Member States understand its value more than the UK does.
    These comments are extremely interesting within the context of Scotland’s independence referendum. So, the UK tells Scotland that it’s a straight yes/no – but if the UK carries out a referendum, it might mean yes/no or something in between. Can we just have some consistency here? Further, the dismissal of the UK position with regard to the devolved authorities is disingenuous. What if the people of Scotland/Wales or Northern Ireland voted YES to EU but England voted NO. How would that be managed? Scotland has a far more pro-EU approach and our businesses understand its value better than the ‘little englanders’ appear to. It is essential that the UK clarifies its position with regard to a referendum in Europe BEFORE Scotland decides on the Independence referendum. What if Scots voted NO and then the UK pulled out of Europe? That would fundamentally change the goalposts in that debate.

  7. avatar
    Paul Cadier

    A referendum has to be in/out. supporters of either option have to say what sort of relationship we are to have withe EU States. There are plenty of European countries that are not EU members Russia, Switzerland Norway etc. They have fruitful relationships with the EU. Mexico even has a free trade deal with it. UKIP wants a free trade deal under WTO rules which trumps whatever the EU has to say on the matter. They also want to deregulate our economy to improve competitivity. Win/win

  8. avatar
    Christos Mouzeviris

    Oh yes they could..And they should… To end this saga!! They behave like a manic depressed person.. Always unhappy, always bitter about something, always having fears of someone exploiting them or trick them!! If this makes them feel better in their skin let them do it and try to see how it is to be on the outside.. I do not wish or do not want to see the UK go, but this saga of leaving the EU has been going for so long now. It is boring, unhealthy and nerve wrecking to have someone in a group always moaning, always acting like a child and trying to have it their way… So let them be outside for a while and have some time for reflection. Good luck I wish them.

    • avatar
      Paul Cadier

      I agree, a referendum would at least put an end to the moaning about the latest affront to our democracy imposed on us from Brussels. Britain is one of the oldest democracies in the world and we like to hold our lawmakers to account whether they be British or European. unfortunately this cannot be done vis à vis EU regulations which make up for 60% of all legislation. furthermore when we joined the “common Market” we were told it was just a free trade deal and specifically NOT an embryo superstate! People who have been lied to over such a serious issue do tend to moan. this is particularly true when they are net contributors to the Budgets of countries like Greece.

    • avatar
      Christos Mouzeviris

      Chew your bubble-gum that your newspapers and TV channels are giving you to chew in abundance….. And leave Greece out of the discussion.. Brain-washed Brits! They are so entertaining!

    • avatar
      Paul Cadier

      Κριστοφεπ Μουζευπις
      The Brits will not cause the collapse of the eurozone nor the EU for that matter. Germany and Greece will have that honour. I look forward to your posting on September 13th.
      Βest wishes

    • avatar
      Christos Mouzeviris

      Yes, with a little help from New York’s Wall Street and the City of London…. Who are those speculators, credit rating agencies and who fosters them and gives them so much power? Under what criteria they rate a country (that to me represents a nation, not a

  9. avatar
    Peter Schellinck

    Why do we always want to through away the baby with the bath water? First make the EU work as it was set out to do and then we will see that it makes sense to redistribute powers. Cut out the middle layer and we’ll have a strong central EU government and many regional local clusters. Why do we still need national boarders? Let the regions relate directly to the EU parliament. After all we voted them into office, so let them do their job and cut out duplication. If we don’t fix Europe we’ll fade away as we become less then 9% of the worlds’ population. Is that what we want?

  10. avatar
    Ralf Grahn

    Let Britain end forty years of behaving like a spoiled brat, if nothing more constructive can be hoped for and Brixit is what they want.

    But European integration will not win the affection or respect of its citizens before they are given the decisive voice in how the union is governed.

  11. avatar
    eusebio manuel vestias pecurto

    Os estados membros da UE devem dare mais poderes ao Reino Unido porque será uma voz de transformação Europeia olhamos para o passado a UE criou o eurogrupo e depois divemos a crise porque foram cometidos erros ao longo do processo de construçãoe e intergação Europeia

  12. avatar
    catherine Benning

    I am fiercely pro a United Europe. However, you cannot pretend that the requirements of the EU on many issues is counter productive to European citizens and their quality of life. And that as a result of this any thinking nation should want to eliminate those practices from the agenda it has.

    The odd situation is, Brussels refuses to address issues important to the European general public. They are unwilling to discuss or address the political correctness of many aspects in law that is tearing our society apart. Why is that? Why does it appear the EU is more centered on the well being of countries outside Europe rather than on the well being of those States within the European family? Why are you so satisfied with the discontent of the people of Europe and why do you ignore their obvious discomfort as well as their overwhelming difficulties brought about by so much of your legislation?. Showing you as fearful that should you have and open debate, your agenda will fall apart.

    Democracy does not end with debate and common sense. It begins with it. The reason many of the EU nations are discontent and wonder if they are united with those who wish them well, is because you refuse to see the downfall of extremes built in to your policies. And that these extremes are detrimental to the well being of us all.

    Time for a re-think. Ideology is simply a template to kick off with, not a God to worship regardless of the obvious pitfalls you so blatantly ignore.

  13. avatar
    Paul Cadier

    Catherine, I agréé with with much of your analysis but I do not share your optimism that the EU’s current problems can be solved by the same individuals and organization that got us into this mess.

    These unelected civil servants postpone effective solutions. “Kicking the can down the road” is only any good as long as the road lasts. Europeans know this. We will only be satisfied when Europe is reconstructed on the basis of the popular consent which is obviously lackin now.

    The UK needs to leave the EU. Ralph and Christos are at least right in expressing the exasperation of federalists who want the ungrateful UK to remain part of their project. England’s exit should be welcomed by those of you who want to roll up your sleeves and build a European superpower unhindered by English foot-dragging. If you are joined by Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, so be it. The people’s of those countries will be able to vote on which way they want to go. England will always respect their democracy. We know they will respect ours.

    • avatar
      catherine benning


      Lets take it from your opening line. You write you agree with some of my analysis, however, you cannot see that the present inmates of the law making departments of the EU will be able to correct the faults therein with the UK as part of it. And because of that, the UK should leave.

      Now, your thinking on that is hard to follow. What would the UK leaving the EU alter in the governing make up of the EU? We have a few UK citizens in those offices and of course our MEP’s but, in general, the Brits follow along with legislation of those in Europe’s main bodies. Or, do you know something I do not?

      The problem the Brits have with being part of the EU is almost identical to other States. Take the Netherlands, Norway, Sweden, Austria, Germany and other segments of the union. They have similar problems to the British people on issues of a sense of being disconnected from the aims Brussels has for it’s people as a whole. The social engineering. The change to their sense of unity and social cohesion. The feeling of not being listened to or taken seriously. As if they don’t exist in this so called ‘democracy’ we live in.

      Also, they feel they have little idea of who is really pulling the strings in these policies we have all taken on board. Who and what they are supposed to be benefiting. Where all their taxes are being spent and how those in office appear so profligate and unable to balance a budget. To the point where we collectively now face bankruptcy.

      How will Britain’s departure help to correct that scenario, in your way of thinking?

  14. avatar
    Paul Cadier

    I am sure you are right that Great Britain’s or just England’s departure from the EU will not in itself “make the EU more democratic, accountable, transparent, free, innovative, employable or unbureaucratic”.
    It would however allow a newly independent England to pursue those goals to see if they actually work in practice. If they do, then those like-minded people still inside the EU will be able to point to any of England’s successes and say “me too!” to their leaders. It would be a major success for the EU if at least one of their (ex) members could at least fulfill the Lisbon Agenda’s declaration to “become the leading knowledge-based economy in the 21st century”….even if it had to leave the organization to do it.
    The “British” take the view that the UK government has failed to persuade our partners that a “bottom up” Europe was better than “a top down” EU. Democracy on the continent has a lot to learn and we have failed to bring it to the EU. We do not want to extinguish it here by continued membership. We cannot have both. Jean Monnet himself wanted the Brits to join in the European project because they “loved democracy and would guarantee that for the future”. He would be disappointed by current events such as the overturning of referenda in Ireland Holland, and France. We have clearly failed. For us, the EU is no longer fit for purpose, by its own definition.
    After our departure we will still buy BMW cars, drink Bordeaux, and go on holiday to the Costas – we will just have more money to spend.

  15. avatar
    Ian Young

    I take it those who want to ‘repatriate powers’ would be quite happy for other member states to do so. For example if the Tories want a de facto subsidy on the single market by abolishing minimum labour rights then they obviously wouldn’t mind France putting a five per cent tariff on British goods to level the playing field.

    • avatar
      Paul Cadier

      Ian,wages in the UK are quite high by EU standards I don’t think the government would jeopardise this benefit.However in a free trade area it is up to member states to decide their own internal taxation and social policies. Their sole obligation to their neighbours is to abolish all trade tariffs. In your scenario A French tax on british goods would be illegal but a tax say on all services from all countries including France itself would be legal. The Brits, as Europe’s biggest exporter of financial services would be hit hardest but it would be deemed even-handed on a European level. The World Trade Organisation would however take a different view and the decision of it’s court would prevail.

  16. avatar
    Ian Ward

    I think that this would be counter productive and result in significant damage to the UK’s economy, reputation (whats left of it!) and social fabric.

    • avatar
      Paul Cadier

      Ian, I think you fears are misplaced. Britain’s reputation in the minds of international bankers, multi-national corporations, supranational bodies, politicians, mainstream media, and the EU should not be over-stated. Their interests are not the same as the interests of the British people or, more importantly the British economy. You will recall that all of them supported the “Common Market” in 1975 and the Maastricht Treaty in 1992 which led to: the disastrous euro crisis; the “nationalisation”of the losses of their supposedly private banks; the “out-sourcing” of jobs to Asia ; the closure of factories in the UK; the stagnation of real median wages; the immigration of unskilled labour from Eastern Europe; while the remuneration of the top decile rose by 273%.
      What little good news we have had in this time has come from new start-up UK businesses that have created new jobs, and paid their taxes in the UK. (unlike Starbucks, Amazon, and Google) They are not members of the CBI (152 members but the Federation of Small Businesses (25000 members). The latter support an end to job-killing Brussels regulations. Brexit will be good for our whole economy.

  17. avatar
    Pamela Govan

    Of course, the Olympics since then also had an impact. Many people liked the “Of course, the Olympics since then also had an impact. Many people liked the fact that Scottish athletes were competing as team GB sportsmen and women. They saw themselves as part of something bigger..”

    And which part of Scotland did you pick up that feeling! Any one who thinks they they are “moved” because Chris Hoy bursts into tears each time a flag is raised is indeed kicing themselves on!
    How diluded

    • avatar

      Almost “diluded” as those Scottish nationalists who think they’ll win the referendum on independence.

      Which country do you think funds the 60% of Scots working in the public sector? I’ll give you a hint laddie, it’s not Scotland and it’s not the EU.

  18. avatar
    Paul X

    “Or is all this loose talk of “clawing powers back” raising false expectations amongst the British public?”
    Exactly, it’s the British public that want the powers back not the politicians
    We democratically elect a government which empowers them to run this country in the best interest of the people who elected them
    It has never given them the authority to give those powers away

  19. avatar
    Paul Cadier

    Sorry it did not work out with your Home counties girlfriend. My father a French citizen, luckily for me, had better luck with my English mother!

    Your helpful suggestions, about how we can resolve the dire problems that beset England, I take on board. But those matters will be resolved by the Isish, Scots, Welsh, and New Zealanders themselves….and of course the English. All of the above are democracies and as Voltaire said: “I may disagree with everything you say but I will die for your right to express them.”

    I do think we both agree that such a disreputable country as England/UK has absolutely no place within the European Union whatsoever. This is a view that even my old friend Ralf Grahn has begrudgingly come to accept.

    • avatar

      The UK is disreputable? Well, at least we haven’t sunk to the level of Vichy.

      Look elsewhere next time you need to be saved from yourselves (Napoleon) or Germany (Kaiser Wilhelm, Adolf Hitler).

      Oh my goodness, the French don’t like us! I’m so shocked!

  20. avatar

    The repatriation of powers is all a bit vague , untill we know which powers they (the uk government) are talking about there can be no serious debate .More importantly I would like to know what powers the EU would be prepared to release and what ones they are going to demand they keep control of ?

    We can then decide if its worth bothering

  21. avatar
    Paul Cadier

    Streetwalker has a good point. Getting 26 other countries to agree to give the UK special advantages have a nil chance of reaching unanimity even if we could discern any such devolutions of power in advance. Brexit is inevitable. Get used to it.

    • avatar

      Well, we agree on your last two sentences, if nothing else. Adieu.

  22. avatar

    And the next time Europe reverts back to its natural state of war, genocide and tyranny, I want the UK to steer clear and let the Europeans get on with it.

  23. avatar

    Bulgarian foreign policy 101. No wonder not a single EU country wants your citizens entering. You don’t even know what flush toilets are.

  24. avatar

    I think there’s 2 chances, none and even less and that is exactly why Cameron has promised a referendum. No politician will give a referendum on anything unless they are reasonably sure of the result and Cameron is no different; he won’t succeed in any renegotiation and he will then turn round to us and say I haven’t manged to renegotiate so there is no need for a referendum.

  25. avatar
    Guy Peake

    The leading country in Europe is Germany they failed twice to control Europe by war so now they are pushing for a federal Europe and they will control it that way but everyone is scared this

  26. avatar
    eusebio manuel vestias pecurto

    Unión at European yes Britain and European on present and Future

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