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The Politics of Simple Solutions: The Flawed Logic of a Referendum on EU Membership Dr Andrew Glencross Andrew.glencross@stir.ac.uk @a_glencross


The Background • PM David Cameron’s in/out referendum pledge (23 January 2013) • The growth of UKIP – supporters of “Brexit”

• Permutations of coalition deals after General Election (a 2nd GE?) • Fortieth anniversary of Britain’s 1975 referendum on EEC membership


Support for a Brexit Referendum

Source: Chatham House/YouGov 2015


Overview of the argument • Debate in 1975 strikingly similar to that of today • Reason why EU membership remains controversial is combination of British exceptionalism, knowledge deficit, and politicization of immigration • Renegotiation prior to a referendum very unlikely to deliver substantive change • “Brexit” would leave huge amount of unfinished EU business • Regardless of the outcome, a referendum won’t magically heal divisions over EU in British politics


Back to 1975…


The 1975 EEC Referendum Debate • Criticisms of European integration back then sound familiar today – UK pays too much for too few benefits – Europe is too inward-looking – Britain must stay aloof from federal blueprints for monetary integration (EU and EMU already on the agenda!) • In 1970 all 3 major parties (Conservatives, Labour, Liberals) support joining EEC without a referendum • But 1974 Labour party wins election with manifesto pledge to – renegotiate terms of membership – “restore to the British people the right to decide the final issue of British membership of the Common Market” • Cameron’s strategy for 2015 election is identical: renegotiation followed by a referendum (2017)


Why is Cameron offering a referendum? • Logic of party politics – rise of UKIP – internal party dynamics within Conservatives (candidate selection) • Logic of British exceptionalism – “we are in Europe, but not of it” (Churchill) – “in Europe, but not run by it” (William Hague) – exceptionalism sees EU as utilitarian arrangement, “excludes a normative commitment to the European ideal … and evokes British superiority” (Gifford, 2010: 329) • Change in the nature of the EU? – glaring differences between today’s EU and 1975 EEC – but UK pushed for significant changes (e.g. enlargement) and has bespoke policy participation (opt-outs) – nevertheless same concerns about democratic legitimacy (wafer-thin, says Cameron) and terms of EU membership


The Knowledge Deficit (1975) • “Membership of the Common Market also imposes new rights and duties on Britain, but does not deprive us of our national identity. To say that membership could force Britain to eat Euro-bread or drink Eurobeer is nonsense” (Source: Britain’s New Deal in Europe)


The Knowledge Deficit (2015)

Source: Chatham House/YouGov 2015


Why did the 1975 referendum not settle the Europe question? • The 1975 Verdict – clear result: 67% majority (65% turnout) • Logic of British exceptionalism cannot explain everything – far-from-unique context of fragmenting party system and decline of trust in elites and political institutions – politically seductive, populist instrumentalization of EU immigration from lower income member states – free movement of people principle poses headache for parties of left trying to shore up working class vote – top of David Cameron’s renegotiation agenda is the idea of restraining the fundamental EU principle of free movement of people


Rise of Immigration as Most Important Issue


What are the prospects for renegotiation ? • The 1974/75 precedent – scale of renegotiation ambition and the ability to forge partnerships with foreign capitals are decisive factors – Labour government settles for non-treaty-based changes (budget, food from Commonwealth) – Government is able to recommend to voters “a better deal for Britain” • 2015 and beyond – review of balance of competences did not find “smoking gun” – low UK political capital (veto fiasco, attacks on Juncker) – hardline eurosceptics insist on unilateral action (e.g. British parliamentary veto) – negotiating treaty change with new Greek government at the helm!


Voting on EU membership without treaty change


The unfinished business Brexit entails • Participation in single market – negotiating outsider access politically fraught and intertwined with key interest groups – e.g. financial sector (ability to offer banking services), British pensioners abroad, access to EU graduate labour – bilateral deals dependent on reciprocity (unilateral moves by UK would lead to retaliation, as in Swiss labour movement case) • A Generous Exit? – UK product market and labour regulations already lowest in EU (OECD) – EEA/bilateral access requires financial contributions – domestic alternative to CAP necessary – costs of joining CSDP (military/civilian missions) on ad hoc basis • Reopening of Scottish independence question – veto for constituent nations?


The Regional Dimension


Conclusion: Catharsis by referendum? • In the event of a Yes to EU membership – terms of membership will not have improved significantly – Eurosceptics will remain a potent force (EP elections, opposition to euro) – split in Conservative party mirroring Labour/SDP divide after 1975? • In the event of Brexit – vote to withdraw won’t really clarify future of the UK – more uncertainty than ever by virtue of the need to craft a hugely politicized and highly complex new settlement – party conflict over European policy will remain • Getting a better deal, cementing democratic legitimacy, and resolving relationship with EU all a mirage • In any case, longer-term demographics are pro-EU – 69% 18-34 want to stay vs only 43% 65+ (IPSOS/Mori)


Thank You! • Reading suggestions… – ‘The UK’s relationship with Europe is too complex to be settled by a simple ‘in/out’ referendum’ – http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/europpblog/2015/03/12/the-uks-relationshipwith-europe-is-too-complex-to-be-settled-by-a-simple-inoutreferendum/ – ‘Why a British referendum on EU membership will not solve the Europe question’, International Affairs (March, 2015)

The Flawed Logic of a UK Referendum on EU Membership  

Diplomatic Forum Presentation at the London Academy of Diplomacy, 28 April 2015

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