Friday, January 18, 2013

Britain’s Relationship with Europe: Part 1

Niall Ahern

Britain its time to decide-In or out?

As we enter 2013 there is one issue that seems to make the front pages year after year and that is Britain's question on whether to remain as part of the EU. It has now been 38 years since the British people were last asked this question at the ballot box and it is fair to say that there have been significant changes since then. With David Cameron about to make a speech on the future of Britain's relationship with Europe, it looks increasingly likely a referendum of sorts will be on the cards after the next election. Yet isn't it time that at least one of the three main leaders at Westminster offer the public what they really want? This being a simple question on whether Britain wishes to remain as part of the EU or not. For far too long anti-EU voices are all the public hear and it is hard to find those who have anything positive to say about the EU. However, as this two part blog focusing on Britain's relationship with the EU will set out-2013 will mark a key year when debates on our membership with Europe really become contested. The first blog will explain why Cameron (or any leader that wishes to steal the limelight from him) should offer a simple 'in/out' question when the time is right sometime early in the next parliament. The question regarding Britain’s membership has gone on for too long and the appetite for a say on the issue is only increasing. In the second blog to come in a few weeks time, the arguments for staying in the EU will be explored in more depth and by then Cameron will have set out his ideas on Britain’s relationship with Europe. Britain it's time to decide: in or out?

As things currently stand, it looks increasingly likely that Cameron's speech will offer a referendum sometime between 2015-2020 but only once our terms have been 'renegotiated' and only if the public vote for a Conservative majority. However, there are significant problems with this tactic. This will throw up problems not just for his own party by way of still not promising an in/out referendum but also with our European neighbours who he may assume allow us to repatriate powers back to Britain in return for keeping us in EU. Yet the rest of Europe will hardly wish to offer concessions to Britain at a time when they are facing more pressing matters. Another problem with this tactic is it would almost certainly hand UKIP the Euro 2014 elections and after a year when his backbenchers have become more rebellious-cause even more headaches for him in the run up-to 2015.The main party leaders need to take much more notice of public opinion such as the poll by YouGov in the autumn of 2012 which found that 67% of the British public wanted a referendum on Europe. Put more simply, we are now getting to a stage where the appetite for a referendum is getting increasingly significant and a quick look back at 2012 demonstrates this further.

The last 6 months of the year were a tipping point in an anti-EU direction. The by-elections in November were the best results ever for UKIP with the party taking second place in both Middlesbrough and Rotherham (they beat the Lib Dems and pushed them into fourth in Croydon North). Many commentators have argued that UKIP is increasingly likely to win the European elections in 2014 which is a fact that cannot and should not go ignored. In addition, polling by the Guardian in November found that for the first time, there is a clear majority of the public who would vote to leave the EU if asked today (56%). Arguably, we have heard little from the pro-EU camp at present and as with all polling data this could change if and when a debate really began. Even so, it adds weight to the argument that the country needs a proper debate on our membership with businesses, unions, politicians and those in favour really needing to raise their heads. We are already starting to see this as Cameron’s speech on Europe approaches.

Another reason why a simple in/out question should be asked is that it is incredibly naive and narrow minded of the UK to think that the rest of the EU will even allow us to renegotiate our membership further. Patience towards British demands from the EU budget to several other policy areas has run increasingly thin and it's worrying to see that many within this country haven't really noticed this as yet. Should a referendum take place that asked a question on repatriating powers (which the public would clearly vote for) there seems to be a belief in Westminster that we would get what we want. Yet it’s crucial we recognise that things are different this time round. Europe is still in recession and is by no means out of it yet. The gap between those in the north and south continues to widen and unemployment in some peripheral counties is starting to approach 30%. With issues such as these affecting millions across the continent, the debate about Britain’s membership couldn’t come at a worse time. Furthermore, there are many uncertainties with this negotiating approach that could be very detrimental to the UK's interests. Europe already perceives us to be a difficult partner having secured opt-outs from several areas that make the EU what it is. In addition, any bridges we had built in Europe over the past decade are now severely weakened as the recent EU budget negotiations demonstrated by the UK standing alone in its views. This example alone should demonstrate that we may not get anywhere in trying to renegotiate our membership at all.

In summary, the constant debates about our relationship with Europe create uncertainty and damage our negotiating hand. For too long the UK has had an obsession with whether we should remain members or not and this hasn't gone unnoticed in Europe (and the business world). The British public have not had their say on our continued membership with Europe in 38 years. With so much change since then, it is right that the public want and should get a say in the next parliament. The increasing rise of UKIP at the ballot box, combined with successive polls wanting to have a referendum or leave, demonstrate that the appetite for a say is so strong the public simply will not accept anything less. Cameron has a chance to take the wind out of UKIPs sails and satisfy his backbenchers in his speech on Europe. Other leaders could beat him to it and get credit for actually listening to what voters want. Those in favour of continued British membership of the EU need to come together now and start laying the groundwork for a referendum early in the next parliament. My second blog on this subject will discuss some of these arguments which often go overlooked. It will then be time to decide: Britain: in or out?