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Debates

The UK and Europe

Britain’s European Neverendums

Tim Oliver / Apr 2016

Boris Johnson, British MP, mayor of London and leading "Leave EU" campaigner. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

 

There must have been more than a few raised eyebrows when at February’s European Council David Cameron told his EU counterparts that the UK’s referendum would settle Britain’s European question for a generation. Settling as multifaceted an issue as Europe in one referendum is not possible. Pressure to hold further referendums will soon build. In Britain, the calling of a referendum might rest largely with the prime minister. They are, however, hardly immune to political and parliamentary pressures. They may also use a referendum as a tactic for dealing with a difficult political, government, economic, or diplomatic problem, something many accuse Cameron of doing as a means to appease Eurosceptic Conservative backbenchers.

In a recent report for the Federal Trust, I mapped out how a future referendum or referendums might be triggered. The number of possible further referendums shows how the issue of Europe will not be settled for a generation anytime soon and how future British governments will continue to struggle with the issue. It means the UK, EU and Europe more broadly face the real prospects of neverendums. Granted, the possibility of any of the following actually happening varies widely, but until May 2015 many felt a UK in/out referendum was a remote possibility.

An unclear result

Eurosceptics in no mood to concede defeat if the referendum delivers a small majority to remain inside the EU, is one based on a small turnout, or won thanks to strong remain votes in places such as Scotland or London. If anything Eurosceptics would view such a result as a tactical defeat, not a strategic one. Britain’s debate about the EU frequently hears complaints that the 1975 referendum was unfair because of differences in campaign spending, a biased media and political messages that some argue were deceitful.

Similar accusations will circulate following the 2016 vote. Anger and frustrations at the EU and the other factors that drive Euroscepticism will refuel support for withdrawal. This could happen as a result of the EU being slow to deliver on the promised renegotiation or the changes promised take longer to emerge leaving British voters feeling cheated. Support for Eurosceptic candidates and parties such as UKIP could remain high thanks to Conservative and Labour divisions over Europe and other political matters. Having watched Cameron campaign to stay in the EU, the Conservative party’s membership may counter by electing a Eurosceptic leader to follow him. Calls for another in/out referendum would soon build.

EU Treaties or transfer of powers

A new EU Treaty or transfer of powers would trigger the referendum requirement of Britain’s European Union Act 2011. While this would depend on the interpretation of a minister that a major transfer of power is proposed, this does not prevent the Commons rebelling and voting for a referendum. David Cameron argued that the new relationship, one sanctioned by the British people in a referendum, would bring stability to UK-EU relations. This overlooks how the UK is attached to an EU in flux. Prime ministers have long felt compelled to return from European Councils in a position to give a clear statement they defended British “red lines”. For all its flaws, Cameron’s renegotiated relationship would become the biggest red line of all. Any actual vote on changes to the relationship might be on the technicalities of transferring certain powers or changing a small part of that renegotiated relationship, but the debate and especially a rejection would open the entire issue of Britain’s membership.

The prospect of a new treaty to approve the restructuring of the Eurozone would certainly restart debate, possibly leading to calls for Britain to seek another renegotiated relationship. Britain may even imitate some other EU states by holding votes on aspects of EU policy, such as is soon to happen in the non-binding vote the Dutch will have on EU-Ukrainian relations. Some Eurosceptics argue a vote to remain will lead in time to the UK’s membership of the Euro. Such a vote might seem unlikely, but it reminds us of the range of issues that could trigger another vote on UK-EU relations.

A second vote after a ‘real’ renegotiation or to approve the exit deal

Further referendums cannot be ruled out if Britain votes to leave. Just as with a small majority to remain, a small majority to leave would lead to calls for a re-run, especially if some form of economic shock followed the result and saw polling register a move to support for remaining in the EU. Thanks to the peculiarities of the UK’s uncodified constitution, the referendum result is not binding on Parliament. Under the EU’s withdrawal clause – Article 50 – Britain would not withdraw until agreement was reached with the rest of the EU. Some Eurosceptics have argued a vote to leave the EU would apply such pressure on the EU that it quickly agrees to a more substantial renegotiation as a way of keeping the UK. This tactic has been dismissed by David Cameron and critiqued by others. Boris Johnson, once a keen advocate of such a strategy, now seems to admit it has limited chance of succeeding. It cannot, however, be ruled out as a development following a vote to withdraw.

Equally, there may be pressure for the British people to vote on the UK-EU exit deal such as membership of EFTA or the EEA. Pressure for such a vote will be heard especially from those who do not agree with the obligations or costs for the UK that the deal would bring. A British Government angered by the deal the EU offers the UK might go so far as to repeat the approach of the Greek government of calling a referendum in order to show the opposition of the British people to any offer put to it by the EU.

UK-EU Relations in Flux

Once outside the EU the new UK-EU relationship could come under pressure from changes by the EU. Should the deal be compromised by changes inside the EU or the UK then the British Government could call a referendum as Switzerland did over changes relating to the free movement of people. This could be due to wider changes to the EU-EFTA/EEA relationships. Some Eurosceptics also see EFTA or the EEA as a stepping-stone away from the EU, with a future referendum potentially called in an attempt to cut links with EFTA or the EEA.

Given the political arguments about the UK’s membership of the ECHR a referendum could be called on that issue as well. Should the UK fail to reach an exit agreement with the EU or opt for some form of traditional trade deal, then it is possible that at a later date it will consider moving back towards the EU through membership of EFTA or the EEA (or reformed versions of them). Any such move, along with any attempt to rejoin the EU, could trigger a referendum.

Other Referendums

The European question could trigger other referendums within the UK over EU matters. A frequently foreseen outcome of a vote to leave the EU is one where Scotland votes to stay but the rest of the UK – and especially areas of England – vote to leave. Scottish nationalists would then use this as the basis on which to call a second Scottish independence referendum. Some commentators have also pointed to the constitutional crisis that could follow a vote to remain that won thanks to strong ‘remain’ votes in areas such as Scotland or London. This could cause resentment in the areas of England that voted to leave, adding to existing unease at the place of England within the UK. The possibility of a majority of the rest of the UK voting to leave the EU if Scotland left the UK could see pressure build for a second Scottish independence referendum. If Scotland then voted to leave the UK then this would be followed by a vote in the remaining UK (rUK) over continued membership of the EU.

Possible future referendums on UK-EU/European matters

2016 Vote = Remain

2016 Vote = Leave

Other Referendums

Slim majority leads to pressure for a second remain/leave vote.

Slim majority leads to pressure for a second remain/leave vote.

Scotland on leaving UK to rejoin EU.

EU treaty change.

Second vote to secure ‘real’ renegotiated relationship with EU.

An England/rUK vote on EU membership (or on various other policies in columns 1 and 2) after a vote for independence by Scotland.

Transfer of powers to EU.

Vote on exit deal offer from EU.

Northern Ireland over future Anglo-Irish relations.

Vote on other EU matter such as accession of new member.

Vote on changes to UK-EU deal, e.g. from changes to EU-EFTA/EEA or UK withdrawing from them.

Free trade deals: TTIP?

Vote to take part in more EU integration such as membership of the Euro.

Vote on UK membership of ECHR.

 

Another remain/leave vote at a later date as a result of refueled Euroscepticism.

Vote to rejoin the EU, or move from FTA/WTO to EEA/EFTA membership.

 

 

In each of these referendums the UK’s public and political elite would wrestle with the problem of reducing the complexities of the UK-EU relationship to a single question. This is not to say that any of these votes and their campaigns, including the forthcoming one, will not provide the British people with a welcome opportunity to debate the European question. Referendums do provide opportunities for a big issue to be debated by a citizenry. The problem with the forthcoming referendum is not only that a multifaceted issue is being reduced to a single question but also that it is intended as a quick fix for the long-running failure to manage the issue.

David Cameron told his EU counterparts that the referendum will settle the issue for a generation. Given that this is unlikely, the prospect of further referendums (whether in or outside the EU) at least offers the chance to test the idea that the more the British people debate the issue of Europe the better they will understand it, in turn allowing the issue to be better managed. The experiences of Denmark and Ireland are given as examples of two EU states where regular referendums have led to a more settled and better-managed relationships with the EU. This may be so, but it begs the question of how many referendums a state needs to have to reach such a stage. Both states have also rejected or come close to rejecting several votes on EU matters, and Denmark has a sizeable Eurosceptic movement.

Britain therefore faces the possibility of descending into ‘neverendums’ in trying to deal with the complexities of the European question. It also faces the likelihood of frustration and bitterness from expectations that a referendum can settle a question that is deeply embedded into the very nature of the UK’s constitution, democracy, political economy, security, identity, unity, and place in the world.

 

Tim Oliver

Tim Oliver

April 2016

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