What should Labour’s EU policy be in opposition? What can at the same time be positive about the future, realistic, deliverable, and also decisively different from the coalition’s approach to the EU?
The starting point seems to be a few high profile events to talk about this stuff – Policy Network (last week) and The Fabians (later this week) are looking at EU matters, and it seems an idea is forming among some of the Euro-stodge-integrationists in Labour Party that the way forward is for Labour to advocate a referendum on in-or-out of the EU. The debate is outlined by Sunder Katwala in an opinion piece for Left Foot Forward (thought LFF was an evidence based blog…?) and cites the views of Wayne David and Keith Vaz on the matter.
The argument – further underlined in December by Sunder of the Fabian Society – is that such a referendum would be more likely to result in a Yes result than any other referendum on an EU matter. So let’s have the vote, we’ll stay in, and into the future the never-ending fight about EU matters in the UK will be no more.
If only this were so.
Firstly, any in-or-out referendum must specify what ‘out’ actually means. Does it mean an arrangement like Norway? Like Switzerland? Like the USA? Just free and tariff-free trade, or more than that – integration lite? And what would the EU institutions, and the other 26 Member States think of this? Without some answers to this point the idea is an abstract concept at best, and the ‘out’ side would have a field day making it look like other countries were punishing the UK.
Which leads to the second issue that gives me headaches about this issue. It strikes me that this idea is gaining ground due to the complete absence of any other valid things to say, and also any valid leadership on UK-EU relations. Blair dithered, Brown was negligent at best, and so over 13 years of Labour the UK population’s feelings about the EU went from bad to worse. Rather that stepping into that void and trying to scope some idea of what a social democratic EU of the future would look like, it instead strikes me that calling for a referendum is the rather easy and appealing way forward instead. It looks democratic, it would divide the Tories, it requires no leadership or difficult advocacy…
Lastly, the in-or-out referendum does not answer the question of the UK’s relationship with the EU for evermore, or indeed even for any lengthy period of time. The EU will continue to evolve, will continue to do a combination of good and bad things, a combination of things that are in the UK’s interests and things that are not, and an ever changing combination of economic and political union. The only way to really put these matters right is to push for greater democratic accountability of the EU’s institutions – federalism essentially – and ensure the individual decisions at EU level are themselves legitimate.
With the caveat that I’m not the biggest fan of referendums in the UK anyway (they are too often used as a substitute for political leadership), I’m not intrinsically opposed to the idea of a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. But it sure isn’t a simple, straightforward solution.