Christopher Howarth is a senior political analyst at the think tank Open Europe (and former Conservative Party Adviser).
The discussions at the EU summit will inevitably focus on Greece and the eurozone and so mercifully the UK will again largely be a spectator. However, EU leaders are also seeking to further advance the “fiscal compact”, which Cameron refused to sign up to back in December, again highlighting how the end point for the UK is inevitably different to that of the eurozone. It is now settled that the UK will never join the Euro, and neither can it subscribe to further integration – yet the eurozone is speeding towards fiscal union and all EU states bar the UK and Denmark are legally obliged to join. It is therefore clear that, at some point new membership terms will need to be defined, but how? Crucial to this will be what becomes policy in the Conservative Party’s next manifesto.
We have a precedent to follow as we have been here before, (in November 2009) – the last time the Conservatives set out detailed proposals on the UK’s relationship with the EU. The Czech President had just bowed to the inevitable and signed the Lisbon Treaty, creating a strategic problem for the party leadership that it could no longer ignore. On the one hand Conservative MPs, (and more importantly candidates) were viscerally hostile to the Treaty, generally believed the EU had gone too far and wanted powers back. On the other the Conservative leadership did not to wish promise anything it knew would be difficult to deliver and (rightly or wrongly) to say anything that could lead to a hostile reaction from Sarkozy and Merkel. What came out of the frantic internal discussions was set out in a speech by David Cameron’s on 4 November 2009.
The speech committed the Conservatives to an attempt to undo some effects of the Lisbon Treaty but not to full scale renegotiation and definitely not a referendum, apart from on future transfers of power to Brussels. But David Cameron also stated “of course we can return to this subject in a manifesto for the parliament after the next one…” and, in the event he failed to achieve his ends:
“we would not rule out a referendum on a wider package of guarantees to protect our democratic decision-making, while remaining, of course, a member of the European Union.”
So it is Conservative policy (Coalition excuses aside) to consider a referendum if it proves impossible to achieve anything this Parliament – which is looking increasingly likely. And the million dollar question: a referendum on what, exactly?
Well, here are the options that could go in a manifesto:
In/out, binary referendum: This would commit the Conservatives to a public vote on EU membership, with the options being the status quo versus full withdrawal from the EU.
Pros: It would post a clear, binary question in a referendum and satisfy a fraction of the parliamentary party.
Cons: Both answers would be wrong. A "stay in" would kill off efforts to radically reform the EU (which an overwhelming majority of the British electorate wants), while an "out" vote would trigger more questions than it answers (e.g. alternatives to membership – EEA, Swiss-style bilateral deals, Customs Union, WTO rules). It would also fundamentally split the Conservatives while uniting everyone else (Lib Dems, Labour, Business and Media).
No referendum – a manifesto commitment to renegotiate: A commitment to seek to renegotiate its membership terms and so gain a popular mandate via the general election.
Pros: It gives an incoming government flexibility to negotiate when the time is right.
Cons: It does not answer the desire for a referendum or give an explicit and provide the forceful show of opinion that might be needed to aid negotiations.
A mandating referendum: This seems to be what David Cameron was hinting at in 2009. A referendum would grant the government a mandate to renegotiate the treaties with the other EU states.
Pros: It could give a clear expression of the British people’s desire to repatriate powers.
Cons: It would immediately bog an incoming government down in a referendum campaign many people would not understand. What happens if nothing is achieved in the negotiations? What happens if the referendum fails to attract a good turnout or people vote no? It would be a bit like holding a referendum on who we want to win the Euro 2012.
A confirmatory referendum: An alternative to the above is to promise to renegotiate the UK’s EU membership and put the outcome of the negotiations to a referendum.
Pros: It is clear what the electorate are giving their approval to.
Cons: If nothing much is achieved people in favour of a wider negotiation may not vote, feel let down or potentially vote No. What happens if they vote no?
A mandatory and confirmatory referendum: This option would allow for two referenda – one before renegotiation and one after.
Pros: It is the purest option democratically and it’s clear what the vote would be on.
Cons: It could involve voter fatigue and shares some of the pitfalls of 2 and 3 above.
A reserved referendum: In this case the manifesto would commit the Government to renegotiation, but with the ‘nuclear option’ of a far wider referendum if the negotiations fail to achieve a significant repatriation of power.
Pros: This would give the incoming Government some bargaining power, would show it meant business and give it some flexibility.
Cons: It would be up to the government to decide if its negotiating mandate had been met so potentially avoiding a more in-depth examination of the UK’s membership of the EU.
A multi-stage, multi-option referendum: A final option, which is gaining traction, is to combine some of the above scenarios. This could involve French-style rounds of referenda, i.e. a first round would involve in, out or renegotiate, with a second round involving a vote on the two runner-ups.
Pros: It would fairly capture the options on the table and potentially give a UK government a very strong mandate.
Cons: Again, some of the same problems re-emerge, for example, when will the electorate vote, ahead of the re-negotiation or afterwards? The whole process could also become prohibitively complex.
There’s then the question of what would actually be entailed in a re-negotiation package with respect to what powers a government would actually wish to ask back. Working with an All Party Parliamentary Group on EU reform, Open Europe is currently setting out a number of areas where powers, in various forms, could flow back to the UK, putting its relationship with Europe on a sustainable footing (see here, here, here and here ).
The ground is moving under our feet – the status quo is no longer an option.
We still have a long way to go, and more so than in any other area, the Conservatives may be overtaken by events, as it’s still anyone’s guess exactly where the eurozone – and therefore the EU – is heading. But it’s absolutely clear that Conservatives, of all ranks, need to start to seriously think this through.