We may well need a referendum on Europe - but not on today's motion's terms and not right now
About 70 constituents have contacted me regarding today’s debate on whether there should be a referendum on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, almost all of them urging me to vote for a referendum.
I have a lot of sympathy with this in principle for three reasons:
• First, it is now nearly 40 years since the original referendum ratifying the UK’s membership of what was then the EEC. Many of today’s electorate weren’t entitled to vote then and those that were are entitled to argue that the institution has changed a great deal since.
• Second, opinion polls show that a significant proportion of the electorate - possibly even a majority - favour withdrawal. That might change during a referendum campaign - it did last time - but what is clear is that the public have never reached a settled view in favour of membership.
• And third, given that it is a major constitutional issue the final say ought to rest with the British public. Given that none of the major parties favours withdrawal, it is not an issue that can easily be resolved at a General Election - clearly people could vote for UKIP but the evidence suggests that most of those who favour withdrawal are reluctant to do so in the context of a General Election when issues such as the economy, education, crime and the NHS predominate. A referendum therefore seems the correct solution.
However, I will not be voting for the particular motion before the House of Commons today. The constituents who contacted me - and others who might share their views - may be angry about that and at the very least deserve to know why.
In essence, I think the motion is flawed in three regards:
• First, and most seriously, I believe it is a grave mistake to have a three-option referendum (the status quo, renegotiation and withdrawal), which is what the motion proposes. Imagine a scenario where 34 per cent voted for the status quo, 33 per cent voted for renegotiation and 33 per cent voted for withdrawal. Technically the result would be the status quo but that would clearly lack democratic legitimacy because 66 per cent would have voted for some kind of change.
• Second, even if you do favour a three-option referendum, it is clearly ridiculous to hold such a referendum when we don’t know what the result of any renegotiation would be – you would be asking people to vote for a blank piece of paper.
• Third, I cannot imagine a worse time to have such a referendum. We are in the middle of the most profound economic crisis. All of the Government’s attention should be on tackling that crisis and restoring the economy to growth.
I would, however, have voted for the amendment in the name of George Eustice MP, were it selected for debate, which called on the Government to “publish a White Paper during the next session of parliament setting out the powers and competences that the Government would seek to repatriate from the EU, to commence a renegotiation of Britain’s relationship with the EU and to put the outcome of those negotiations to a national referendum”. I have joined the Eurosceptic group that George and others have set up to develop thinking in this area with the aims of:
• examining the options for a new UK-EU relationship that would better serve the interests of UK citizens;
• setting out what this new relationship could look like; and
• establishing a process for achieving the change.
To summarise then, there is a strong case for a referendum - but once the economic crisis is over and we are clear what the terms of a negotiated relationship with Europe might be.
If you are a constituent, feel strongly about this issue and would like to meet me to discuss it, please do not hesitate to contact my office on 020 8663 8741.