Thursday, 20 October 2011

Let's not have a referendum

I suppose it should be mildly encouraging that the House of Commons is to debate and vote on whether there should be a referendum concerning the UK's membership of the European Union. The BBC informs me (here) that what will be debated is whether a referendum should be held giving the great British public three choices: (i) remaining in the EU, (ii) withdrawing from the EU and (iii) staying in but renegotiating the terms "in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation".

My initial reaction was to wonder at the absurdity of offering three options. Nothing seems to be said about the proportion of votes required for any single option to be deemed the winner. Will it be more than one third or more than half? If the former it will lack legitimacy, if the latter it will set a very high hurdle for each option. 40% for staying in, 30% for withdrawal and 30% for renegotiation could be contrued as 70% for staying in but trying to change the unchangeable or as 60% for changing the status quo without any obligation on government to do anything about it. Either way it is completely unsatisfactory.

My second reaction was to ask whether there is any difference between the first and third options and, indeed, between the second and third options.

Staying in does not prevent renegotiation of the terms of membership, so option (iii) (if acted on by the government) merely adds a requirement to enter negotiations. What it cannot do is dictate the outcome of those negotiations because, by definition, negotiations only lead to a change if all parties to the discussion agree on a specific outcome. As I understand it an outcome in favour of option (iii) would not require the government to do anything, although it would be bad politics for them not to make at least a token gesture of trying to change the terms of EU membership. And even if they were constitutionally obliged to negotiate that would not guarantee any particular result.

Leaving the EU cannot take place in a vacuum. The UK has numerous trade treaties with countries around the globe, absent such treaties practical business cannot be conducted and just those sorts of treaties will be required if we are to deal in a sensible manner with the remaining EU nations. Withdrawal from the EU necessarily requires new treaties to be negotiated with the new, slightly smaller, EU because country-by-country treaties with EU members are not an option - the EU as a conglomerate has control over such matters. In other words, withdrawal will require negotiation "in order to create a new relationship based on trade and cooperation" - so what of option (iii)?

The terms proposed for a referendum look like a hopeless and confused committee-created fudge. A referendum on the terms proposed is likely to achieve only one thing, namely to kick the issue into the long grass for the foreseeable future. Only a straight in/out question is appropriate.