Despite all the rhetoric there is nothing new in Miliband’s fine words except that the referendum is to be provoked by one act – new powers. But it asks a question about something different: stay in the EU or get out. Schadenfreude, our secret columnist in Brussels, is baffled by this latest development
The multinational Eurowatch fraternity in Brussels closely observes the antics of British politicians when they address questions concerning the European Union – ‘O what a tangled web we weave’.
The latest examples are a newly discovered affection for referendums. All seem to have forgotten that both United Kingdom Labour Prime Minister Clement Attlee and Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher dismissed the referendum as the tool of “dictators and demagogues”. They had learned their lesson from the Nazis obtaining ex-post facto approval of their misdeed by rigged public consultation.
The current UK Labour Leader Ed Milliband says that when in government he will call a referendum if any new powers are to be given to the European Union – which, however, he thinks improbable in the medium term.
So no Labour referendum is likely because there are no new issues to consider. Inexplicably, the referendum in question would not be about whether the EU should obtain the aforesaid new powers but about whether the UK should stay in or get out. Astonishingly, if new powers were being transferred the hypothetical Labour government would have already agreed to the transfer since the relevant European Council decision would be unanimous. And it is already British law, passed by the present coalition government, that any new transfer of power to the EU triggers a referendum.
In effect, therefore, despite all the rhetoric there is nothing new in Miliband’s fine words except that the referendum is to be provoked by one act – new powers. But it asks a question about something different: stay in the EU or get out. If a government considers that there should be an in-out referendum, it should not confuse the issue by tying it to a decision which it has already taken and which was, by that very fact, a proxy vote of confidence in the EU.
The Conservative half of the coalition government likewise has its feet off the ground. If re-elected – solo or duo – in 2015, it would conduct a spontaneous in-out referendum in 2017. It has to negotiate within 30 months, a ‘new settlement’ with the other EU members to establish a new ‘balance of competences’ between the EU and the UK. Or, perhaps, between the EU and all its member states including those who have not asked for it. We do not know which. Its aim would be to satisfy its vociferous anti-EU faction with the new deal – so vote ‘in’ – or, if no new deal, to make common cause with it ‘out’.
So to conclude through a glass darkly: if the EU is not given new powers there will be no in-out referendum under a Labour government; if a right wing government concludes a new settlement with the EU, it may promote a referendum and advocate ‘in’; if it fails to make a deal it will probably promote a referendum and advocate ‘out’. Whatever happens, the controversy of the UK’s EU membership will persist. How on earth did we get to this point?