Last 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.