Friday, 2 November 2012

2 November 2012

You may as well start thinking about it now, because it's beginning to look as if before too long, you're going to be asked to vote in a referendum on Britain and the EU.

Not this side of the next election, I admit, but my strong hunch is that all three major parties will have something in their manifestos come 2015 about being committed to a referendum. And that means, regardless of the election outcome, a referendum there will be.

Perhaps it's not before time. For the best part of 20 years, ever since the ructions over the Maastricht Treaty, British politics have been conducted in the full knowledge that an unspoken truth was lurking in the Westminster undergrowth: this country has still not made up its mind about what it wants its relationship to be with its neighbours across the Channel.

The trouble is that as soon as you start asking questions about it, more questions arise. Do you want the UK to remain in the EU? Well, you may respond, that rather depends on whether you mean the EU as it is now, or the EU as it may become over the next decade.

Would you like the UK to leave the EU but retain a close trading relationship with it? Well, that depends whether you have a Norway model in mind, or a Switzerland model. (Believe me, they're different …)

Last Wednesday's vote in the House of Commons, when the government was defeated on an amendment seeking a commitment to cut the total EU budget, was a wake-up call. Europe is back on the Westminster agenda, despite all David Cameron's efforts since he became Tory leader seven years ago to shove it in the back of the cupboard and close the door tight.

Every time voters are asked what issues matter most to them, Europe comes way down the list. The economy, immigration and the NHS are the issues they highlight -- Europe, according to one recent poll, was identified by only 15 per cent of voters as an important issue facing the country.

The UK's net contribution to the EU this year (ie what it pays in, minus what it gets back, minus the rebate negotiated by Margaret Thatcher) comes to just a shade under 7 billion pounds. That compares to around £104 billion that's spent on the NHS.  

EU enthusiasts argue that the benefits the UK gets from membership are substantial compared to the relatively modest cost: a say in how the future shape of Europe will be decided; a whole raft of trade agreements with other nations, all of which would have to be separately negotiated if Britain were to leave; and a voice on the global diplomatic stage which would be much smaller were the UK to be operating alone.

Against which Euro-sceptics argue that the larger the EU becomes, the smaller the British voice becomes; that the pooling of sovereignty has taken key powers away from elected representatives at Westminster; and that EU rules and regulations are stifling British enterprise.

But perhaps the argument is about more than facts and figures: maybe it's also about how British voters think of themselves and their national identity, relative to our fellow-Europeans. Proud, separate, different -- and yes, let's be honest about it, better.

But back to that referendum. Party leaders know only too well that recent experience suggests that when governments ask voters a direct question about the EU, they don't get the answer they were hoping for. French and Dutch voters said No to a new constitution in 2005; and then a revised treaty, the Lisbon treaty, was thrown out by Irish voters in 2008.  (They eventually said Yes a year later after a number of concessions had been negotiated.)

So suppose there is a UK referendum some time after 2015 -- and suppose the question is something nice and simple, along the lines of: "Do you want the UK to remain in, or to withdraw from, the European Union?" When the question was asked in a referendum in 1975, two-thirds of voters said they wanted to stay in. Forty years on, I fancy the answer would be very different.

How would you vote?

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