Saturday, October 20, 2007

 

That Referendum Question: Do We Need One?


Fellow blogger Cassilis suggests I and others he mentions have a go at thinking about whether we need a referendum on the EU treaty. So I'm having a go at it. Given that I have a naive belief that most political questions are at heart quite simple, I'm inevitably going to oversimplify. I'm going to adduce reasons for a referendum and then those against.

Reasons For

1. Labour promised one on the 'new EU Constitution' before the 2005 election. Admittedly this pledge was born of weakness but in these days of almost zero trust in politicians a promise should remain a promise.

2. The treaty is almost identical with the earlier draft constitution; something attested to by no less a person than the prime mover and author of that document Giscard D'Estaing. If the earlier one required a referendum then, so the argument runs, does this 'clone' of a treaty.

3. A majority of British voters want a referendum and in a democracy this should be reflected in action.

4. The very soul of the nation is involved here. Sixty items will lose the veto which sovereign nations could use to over-rule a majority against. A new 'president' will be elected to oversee the council of ministers- surely a presage of federalism: a United States of Europe's president? In essence, Britain will be ruled by foreigners and who wants that?

5. A referendum, if successful, argue Europhiles, like the one in 1975, will spike the Eurosceptics' guns for a generation so should be fought and won.

Reasons Against

1. The EU has just expanded to include 27 countries yet is still being administered by a system basically designed for only 15. It needs to be streamlined and made more efficient to do its difficult job properly. The treaty will substantially answer this question.

2. We should never forget that the treaty of Rome in 1957 was designed to prevent the kind of conflagrations which destroyed Europe and much of the world besides, twice in the last century. That such a war is now unthinkable is attributable to no little extent to the success of the 'Idea of a United Europe'. A weak EU makes such eventualities less unlikely.

3. Many assert-including Miliband and Brown- that the treaty merely amends the draft constitution; they have a case, though the statements of those senior people who think otherwise renders such a case a weakened one.

4. To maintain its economic dynamism as the largest economic market in the world(China excepted) the EU needs to maintain good decision-making procedures; the treaty will do this.

5. Any nation wishing to assert its sovereignty can ultimately opt out of the EU- membership is not irrevocable.

6. We live in a uni-polar world with one military hyper-power which, led, by its Republican neo-cons, has led the world into dire trouble in the Middle East. To counter such power, the EU needs to speak with a united voice and a single foreign affairs spokesperson is therefore both necessary and desirable.

7. Related to the point above, Britain can never hope to exert influence on world affairs on its own- even Bush's 'best friend' Blair, could not persuade him over crucial aspects of the Iraq operation. A united EU would be able to exert huge influence and Britain as an integral element of such a power bloc would punch its weight.

8.The Guardian's leader today points out, subtly maybe, that those who claim parliament will be diminished unless we have a referendum, are arguing for just such a reduction of its power as it is essentially a representative democratic chamber, designed to preclude such a direct form of democracy.

Of course my list of points is incomplete, but it identifies, I hope, the major arguments. I've noticed that it doesn't matter how rational one is on this issue, people eventually side with their emotions- comments on Cassilis's post reveal this most clearly: 'do you want foreigners ruling Britain?' Only a sceptic could so phrase the question. I have tended to regard crude nationalism as something we should minimize: be proud of your country, but don't think you are morally or in any other sense better than others.

So I'm in favour of blurring the lines, of building up European unity, of hoping more international unity will help solve the problems of climate change, civil wars, religious differences and the rest. Shrinking defensively into one's own national 'kraal' is so not the way to go. Our representatives in the Commons have been elected to use their judgement on our behalves. I suggest we let them do their jobs.

Comments:
Good post Skip and a fair summary of the issues.

At the risk of seeming unnappreciative though - all your 'against' points are actually 'against' a certain outcome rather than the idea of holding the vote in the first place. I'm sure you'd never put is so crudely but it amounts to ' holding a vote is a bad idea because the country would vote no' and as my original post pointed out that's not realy an hounorable position.
 
Not sure I agree actually Cassie as a referendum on a number of things- immigration, death penalty- I'd oppose as the results would be not honourable. We should be grateful for the wisdom of our representatives on such occasions. Where issues are fiendishly complex- say(on the personal level) when doctors diagnose an illness, or(on the national level) whether we should join the euro- I seriously do not think most lay people can be trusted to make the right decision.
 
Referendums are nasty continental ideas which Britain should avoid. An issue with this one (as with them all) is what would the question be? A simple yes or no would hardly be satisfactory, there would need to be some details indicating to the negotiators which bits were good and which bad. Otherwise the entire thing would be an expensive waste of time and effort.

Even the LibDem "should we stay in at all" alternative is fraught with difficulties. There might be one answer were the question "should Britain leave the EU" and another were it "should Britain leave the EU and remain in the EEA where, like Norway for example, it would have to obey all the EU's rules but have no say in their formulation".

Still it will give the army of political pundits something with which to pad out their mainly tedious and largely unread columns or to fill the empty 24/7 news airtime for the next few months...
 
PS re your 'reason for number 2', that great proponent of a United States of Europe, Valéry Marie René Giscard d'Estaing, only said what he said about the treaty to stir up trouble because he was so upset at his baby, the constitution, being rejected.

Never trust a man with an axe to grind, with a girl's first name and with a family name shamelessly sexed-up (or stolen as some say) by his Grandfather...
 
Brown has made no secret of his backing for the treaty.

A referendum would most likely decide against the EU. Would this be perceived as a loss of authority for Brown in the same manner that lost commons votes are perceived? Something which Labour supporters should be looking to avoid

Also, letting the people decide is very well intentioned and democratic. But it would not lead to an informed decision being made, as many votes will be cast on jingoistic and xenophobic lines, rather than looking at what is best for Britain.
 
Commissar
You said, more succinctly, precisely what I was trying to say to Cassilis.
 
You can already vote online about the EU.

Vote YES or NO to Free Europe Constitution at www.FreeEurope.info!
 
I wouldn't dispute for a second the a referendum result would be ill-informed, the Murdoch press would have a field day and all the worst elements of the UK character would come to the fore - I don't doubt that.

All I'm pointing out is that using this fact to deny people a democratic choice is exceptionally dangerous and a very ominous precedent. Would people on the left be happy if a strong right-wing government choose to ignore popular feeling because 'well, they're stupid people really and they're being led by the Mirror / Guardian'?

It all comes back to my first response to Skip - these are all reasons why we should vote a certain way - I still haven't heard anyone articulate a sound and honourable reason for denying people the vote in the first place (other than the press would distort the process and that's not an honourable reason).
 
Cassie
I'm tempted to say honour is not an abundant commodity in politics-though this is no reason to abandon the notion. But I think the defence of representative democracy against the alien referendum variety is indeed honourable. Moreover, if we allow it on this issue then where will it end? Referendums on welfare policy? taxation? We elect MPs to take decisions we may not like- this principle is undermined by the referendum device. That's an honourable position in my book.
 
Very true but the 'representative democracy' agrument happens to implode in this instance:

(1) Some issues are complex so we entrust them to politicians we elect.

(2) When we elect them they makes their intentions and general principles clear so we know how they'll act in power.

(3) When this government was elected it made clear it would consult in a referendum before signing up to the constitutional treaty.

...and here's the rub - if premise (1) is true (Europe is a complex issue) then (3) collapses because you have to posit that the public understood the differences between a constitutional treaty and a reform one - if they're capable of that distinction they're capable of a referendum and if they're not then the representation argument collapses because they understood in general terms they'd get a vote.
 
Cassie
I fear I must concede this one: the 'killer' item is the manifesto pledge which makes it true that there should be a referendum. However, as someone who supports internationalism as the higher good, I hope it doesn't happen as a defeat for the treaty will hold back progress to ends on which the world's future depend.
 
I think that's why the Lib Dem proposal is better thought out than it's given credit.
If you are going to have a referendum then 1) keep it simple 2) smoke out the Murdoch agenda - who's end play is far more than a referendum over a treaty.
 
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