Now is not the time for an EU referendum

Just back from the Commons chamber where I witnessed for over two hours the spectacle of the Prime Minister and then the Foreign Secretary walking the tightrope between economic reality and their Tory backbenchers’ political posturing.

I am a keen supporter of the European Union.  I have always wanted Britain to be an active and positive member.  In every election I’ve stood in I’ve never hid the fact that I’m an ardent Europhile.  So it should come as no surprise to anyone that I will not be supporting the motion before MPs tonight that we should have a referendum on the EU.

I was 8 years old when the country last had a referendum on Europe so I have no real recollection of the campaign.  But in the years since there has been a concerted effort by people on the losing side in that referendum to have another go.  An unholy alliance of left wing members of the Labour Party, right wing Tories and Ulster Unionists have never accepted Britain’s membership of the EU.  Two things have changed in the last 36 years.   We’ve had the political entertainment value of the United Kingdom Independence Party.  But more significant has been the mainstreaming of Euroscepticism within the Tory Party.

Some of that repositioning away from the party of Edward Heath is probably a political response to UKIP, rivals to the Tories on the right of British politics.  But Euroscepticism now appears to be the norm among Tory MPs.  I’ve met many of them newly elected in 2010 who are socially liberal and in favour of free markets, good grounds for being a Lib Dem if it weren’t for their hostility to the EU. Some new Tory MPs are outright Europhobes, open about their desire for Britain to quit the EU.  Many seem to willing the collapse of the Euro currency, an utterly reckless stance totally at odds with Britain’s national interest.

The motion that I will vote against at 10pm tonight calls for a three option referendum.  The questions would be whether Britain should:

A) remain a member of the European Union on the current terms;

B) leave the European Union; or

C) re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation.

A large number of the Tory and Labour MPs proposing this motion are of course really in favour of option B but say they want to try option C.  But this third option throws up so many questions that it fails the basic test of a referendum question, giving people a clear and fundamental choice.  It suggests the possibility that Britain could retrospectively opt out of a selection (which ones?) of treaties and directives that successive British governments and Parliaments have agreed.  It implies that we would stay in the EU but be more like Norway and Switzerland, which are outside.  It’s a question that leads to lots of other questions rather than a clear answer about Britain’s future.

The three questions throw up another conundrum.  Suppose 34% supported A and 33% supported options B and C.  Does anyone really believe that the Eurosceptics would give up at that point?  As William Hague said this afternoon, we’ve just rejected AV in a referendum so the people who want this three party question can hardly demand it in a Euro referendum.

But the most compelling reason for this motion to be rejected is its irrelevance to our current situation.  Britain’s economy is growing very weakly.  Our most significant trading partners, the Eurozone members, are on the brink of a crisis.  Economic turmoil in the rest of Europe would be disastrous for Britain.  It’s within the Ministerial meetings in the EU that the British national interest can be best served.  It’s by pressing for a widening of the single market, sweeping away remaining barriers to intra-EU trade, that Britain and the rest of the EU can return to growth.

Part of me would relish a straight in or out referendum.  I would enjoy arguing for a Yes vote in Bristol West.  But the time for that is not now, there are more pressing European matters to be resolved.  If the EU does have a fundamental change through a new treaty then that would be the right time to have a public vote.  And that is now guaranteed as a result of the European Union Act 2011.

Conservative and Liberal Democrat MPs have profoundly different attitudes to Britain’s place in Europe.  But the Coalition Government Agreement provides for a referendum on any future major treaty that transfers powers to the EU.  We are not at that juncture right now and that’s why I will not be supporting the motion.

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