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Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?

, by Emily Hoquee

The UK is “fading into the European background”, warned former European Trade Commissioner and Labour peer Lord Mandelson in July. In an interview with Euractiv, he argued that the UK government was trapped between eurosceptics and anti-Europeans and was in danger of being forgotten by other EU member states.


  • The author has a master’s degree in European Studies and previously worked at the European Parliament. Emily is the Proof Reading Editor of the TNF.eu

It’s not just Lord Mandelson that’s worried – former Prime Minister Tony Blair has also voiced concern that Britain could leave the EU. In an interview with Germany’s Die Ziet newspaper, Mr Blair said the UK’s exit from the Union could be sparked by too much power being transferred to Brussels.

The Office for National Statistics (ONS) recently revealed that Britain now exports more goods to countries outside the EU than to the countries inside it, as businesses increasingly look to the rapidly-growing economies of Asia and Latin America. The news is likely to bolster British eurosceptics who argue that leaving the EU won’t damage international trade.

So as Europe’s economic woes rumble on, is a referendum on Britain’s EU membership becoming a reality?

Despite the frequent media hysteria about a possible referendum, the Coalition Agreement makes no reference or commitment to hold a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU.

What the Agreement does say is that the government supports further EU enlargement and “is a positive participant in the European Union, playing a strong and positive role with our partners.” Which of course, all sounds very...positive.

Continuing, the Agreement affirms that “no further powers should be transferred to Brussels without a referendum...this approach strikes the right balance between constructive engagement with the EU to deal with the issues that affect us all, and protecting our national sovereignty.” A firmer tone perhaps, but still no references to a referendum on membership.

Writing in the Sunday Telegraph in July, Prime Minister David Cameron said he was prepared to consider a referendum on the UK’s EU relationship, but only when “the time is right.”

Mr Cameron, who said told the newspaper that leaving the EU is not in Britain’s best interests, has the rather challenging task of pleasing hardliners on the Conservative Right who want to leave the Union whilst simultaneously appeasing the party’s Coalition partners, the pro-European Liberal Democrats.

MPs will return to Westminster tomorrow after the long summer recess, and the Prime Minister is likely to hit the ground running by announcing his autumn reshuffle, perhaps as early as next week. Speculation over the reshuffle has swirled around for months, but Conservative Europe Minister David Lidington has been rumoured to lose his job. Sources have claimed that David Cameron has come under pressure from Right-wingers in the party who want to see the Minister replaced with an MP who would take a harder line on Europe. Mr Lidington recently told France’s Le Monde that the UK was a “convinced European”, whose best interests were to stay inside the EU and there was “no question” of an exit any time soon.

For now, it remains unlikely that there will be a referendum, especially while the Conservatives govern in coalition with the Lib Dems. It’s possible that the tone of Britain’s relationship with the EU could change, for example if the “referendum lock” does have to be used then this could trigger a crisis if and when a new treaty is needed. Mr Cameron already prompted a frosty response from his European counterparts when he vetoed the new fiscal treaty last December.

However, in some ways nothing will change and the same old familiar story will continue to play out, with eurosceptic MPs calling for withdrawal from the EU or a “repatriation of powers”. But the reality remains that it really is in the UK’s best interests to stay inside the Union, and for that reason holding a referendum on EU membership is too riskier a gamble for the government to take.

Referendums are expensive and time-consuming – under George Osborne’s Chancellorship the UK economy continues to struggle and GDP shrank 0.5 per cent between April and June this year. If the government decided to spend millions of pounds on what is arguably a vanity project, the decision could spectacularly backfire on an already unpopular administration.

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  • On 2 September 2012 at 11:50, by Sue Replying to: Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?

    Another EU lacky who doesn’t believe in democracy. Come December, when those eurocrats whose sole aim is to be in charge of this EU dictatorship want a new treaty, we will have our referendum. We will vote to leave. I don’t know anybody that wants to stay, but then again, I live amongst real people and not in the EU bubble like this author does.

  • On 3 September 2012 at 23:18, by Shane Replying to: Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?

    Well as a british and Irish citizen I say who cares I’ll still have a british and eu visa but I most admit Britain is economically superior to most eu states so I get there reasons , the eu should never have enlarged to eastern Europe , It was stronger when it was just Britain , Ireland , France , Germany , Belgium Amsterdam , Austria , denmark , Spain , Portugal , Italy , Greece , Sweden and Finland , with Norway and Switzerland supporting , the we added the weak and poor states which have drained the eu and forced so much cash into bringer them to western standards , I say kick them out and fix the west and the maybe more power for Brussels as all countries/states will be economically equal , eastern Europe lags 20 years behind , it’s like the USA and Canada suddenly creating a union with mexico bad idea ...

  • On 8 September 2012 at 02:46, by JFK Replying to: Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?

    Problem with the referendums is that you’ll never have an answer to the question you’re asked. I’d rather hear from the people reacting why they do not support the participation of the UK to the EU (yeah if commenteers ever come back). Diplomatically it is because the UK never wanted a major force on the European continent, the so-called balance of power. And economically, as correctly mentioned by ’I want out’, because they’re having more trade with their ex-colonies.

    To Shane: Britain was and is pro enlargement so that it will be more difficult to deepen the integration. Moreover, Amsterdam is not a country (the Netherlands is) and the USA, Canada and Mexico have a free trade zone called ’NAFTA’. Just for information, there is already way too much desinformation on the internet. But that’s another topic so I’ll stop here.

  • On 17 September 2012 at 17:53, by I want out Replying to: Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?


    At your request I will provide you with some of the reasons why I personally do not want any form of relationship with the EU other than as a trade area. Because of space I will not provide statistics, quotes or references although all are freely available.

    Historically no one has ever asked the British people whether we wanted to be members. No party mentioned joining the EEC in the 1970 General Election so there was never a mandate to do so.

    We have been repeatedly lied to about the very nature of ‘The Project’ by our own politicians but they have been supported in this deceit by EU politicians who knew full well the objective.

    The economic benefits of the EU for the UK are non-existent, aside from the direct cost of £6bn+ we run a massive trade deficit and several entire industries have been destroyed by EU rules e.g. UK fisheries.

    By its very nature the EU is highly bureaucratic and through excessive regulation damages the economic prospects of us all. In addition it is wasteful and ignores the position of ordinary people. The constant moving of the European Parliament and the calls for ever greater budgets in time of austerity are examples.

    The treaties are deliberately obscure so that they are incomprehensible to everyone including government lawyers. But that is almost irrelevant because the ECJ will always stretch a law well past breaking point to further EU aims against nation states / individuals. (Complained about by Roman Herzog and Marc Bossuyt)

    Laws / regulations inconvenient to EU are simply ignored (ECJ does not intervene when the EU breaks the laws) Look at Article 123 of the TFEU, and Article 21.1 of the Statute for the ESCB for examples in context of the ESM. Essentially it does not matter what you sign, what safeguards are offered, they can be ignored by the EU.

    The EU has a long history of institutional corruption and there is no evidence at all that serious efforts are made to control it. Indeed whistle blowers are routinely harassed, denounced and fired. (Tillack et al)

    Then there is the utter contempt for democracy, the EU is incapable of accepting any decision that goes against it. (Long line of referenda.) It has established a Parliament where the number of voters each MEP represents varies by a factor of 14. Indeed the very idea of democracy is challenged, e.g. Mario Monti appointed technocrat stating to Der Spiegel 06/08/12 that he has a duty to educate his parliament and is not bound by parliamentary decisions.

    Finally we are constantly being told that we are all European. Of course we are in terms of geography, but in many other aspects we are often fundamentally different, just ask the French what they think of the Anglo Saxon economic model.

    I do not accept your point that voters do not answer the question set in a referendum, if you take that position then you are denying democracy entirely as why are referenda fundamentally different from any other vote ?

    Anyway, back to the original question, ‘Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?’ I would not put any money against it.

  • On 27 September 2012 at 22:06, by JFK Replying to: Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?

    I want out, Thanks for your extensive reaction. It is clear you’re not basing your opinion upon a few slogans. I could react to each of your statements, but I guess I’m somehow a bit biased (degree in EU-studies, traineeship at EU institution).

    For instance, on your first point: membership was not asked to the citizens of most of the EU members. However, the respective parliaments had to implement all the laws stipulated in the Acquis Communautaire (all the laws applied in the EU), and moreover give their consent to the actual membership. The parliaments, representing the people, approved and in an indirect way the people approved. Moreover, no referenda were organised for the other memberships (UN, WTO,...). I do agree it was never asked, but I think those circumstances somewhat justify the decision not to.

    So this brings me to the second point, about referenda: according to me, there are 4 kinds of ’referenda-persons’. One, those who don’t vote. Two, those who are not interested in the subject but still vote. Three, the misinformed voters who vote. Think for example the Irish who tought the Lisbon treaty would enable abortion in their country. And four, the informed voters. To my opinion, the fourth group is too small during referenda. Sorry for putting it somehow bluntly in the previous post.

    Again, I think it’s good for you to have a well-founded opinion. And I hope we’ll agree to disagree.

  • On 30 September 2012 at 20:27, by I want out Replying to: Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?


    The point I was trying to make regarding UK accession was that none of the parties standing for election in 1970 stated that they would apply for membership of the EEC, as such they had no mandate at all to start the process of accession. When it was then put to the people direct and absolute lies were told regarding the aims and intentions of the EEC.

    These two facts alone mean that suggesting that the parliamentary vote was in anyway representative of the wishes of the people is quite simply unsupportable. In addition the EU has required treaties to be approved by parliaments when the treaties being approved are not actually available for examination by the parliamentarians (Maastricht Treaty was going through votes in the UK Parliament in May 1992 but the finalised treaty was only available in October 1992) then frankly I think all claim to democratic oversight is lost. (You may be interested to hear that the Danish Foreign Minister who negotiated Maastricht is on record, Time International 01/06/92 P70, that he did not understand the treaty “and I negotiated it.”)

    Finally when this is coupled with comments such as “Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly” (Giscard d’Estaing on the Lisbon Treaty) one arrives at the view that the people need a more direct involvement than they have been allowed to date by the elites.

    The UN,WTO etc do not interfere directly with the way individual countries run their affairs, they do not for example determine the budget of countries, domestic criminal justice or weights and measures etc., they are in short intergovernmental rather than supra national. Intergovernmental processes have been in place for hundreds of years and I don’t think anyone particularly contests that as a way of reaching agreement.

    The classifications you make regarding ‘referenda-persons’ could equally well be made about electors in any other election. If you take that stance then it really is not a very big step to decide that in order to provide the best for the disinterested and misinformed you have the authority, indeed the obligation, to do what you consider the best for them regardless of their stated wishes. At that point of course you have forfeited any right to call yourself a democracy and have become (with perhaps the very best of intentions) a dictatorship.

    In the end, I am happy to agree to disagree with you, safe in the knowledge that the UK government is now legally obliged to hold a referendum in the event of any new transfers of power to the EU and I do not believe for one moment that the voters will agree.

    Thanks for the debate.

  • On 20 October 2012 at 05:06, by Tzn1 Replying to: Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?

    As a European federalist I would really like to see a closer union in all areas including the economy and defense. Out of the current EU setup it seems that the only government with in principle objections towards that is the UK.

    I am not sure if that is due to a very powerful elite in the UK who can very efficiently manipulate the masses there, or there is really something that makes the UK population significantly different than other Europeans (assuming that the discerning characteristic is not that they are more susceptible to populist propaganda). Having lived before in the UK for 6 years, my feeling is that failings in the UK education has reserved the right to think rationally to the few that can afford a proper education, and that preserves the class divisions. Finally the current ruling class in Britain earns much of their income from speculation at the City of London, and they will present their uneducated herd with any populist argument that will get them to safeguard their position.

    Regardless of the source of the difference, it exists and it is contrary to progress as I see it from the point of view of European federalism. With that in mind I would encourage the UK to finally claim the democracy that all those continentals have supposedly stolen from them and organize a referendum with the question “fully in the EU or fully out of the EU” as soon as possible. In the current climate the answer will be fully out and that will be great news for both the UK and the EU.

    On the one hand the EU will get to progress towards a federal republic unimpeded and solve many current and historical problems, and the UK will get their moment alone and probably eventually come back when the ruling class has changed economic activities or people in the UK finally get sick of the demagoguery and get rid of them.

  • On 23 October 2012 at 20:24, by Charles Replying to: Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?

    In response to Tzn1, the suggestion that UK education is so inferior to that in the rest of the EU such that no one here can think for themselves is risible and if anything shows a certain lack of intelligence in itself.

    Also, class divisions in the UK are little worse than in France or Germany, where my own experience is that class divisions are rampant; in France “le cadre” would never mix with the lower orders and I have met many a snooty Frenchman. The same applies all over Europe.

    I suggest that the British indifference and opposition to the grand federal plan has more to do with history. Britain has no history of occupation by foreign powers, or of rule by undemocratic government, unlike nearly all other EU states. Let us not forget the Germans have a powerful desire to be seen as “the good guys” after 100 years of trampling over the French in 3 wars, and likewise the French prefer to forget these humiliations and instead put forward the European grand plan as theirs, along with with their new friends the Germans.

  • On 30 October 2012 at 17:52, by srl97cochran Replying to: Could a referendum on Britain’s continued EU membership become a reality?

    JFK “So this brings me to the second point, about referenda: according to me, there are 4 kinds of ’referenda-persons’. One, those who don’t vote. Two, those who are not interested in the subject but still vote. Three, the misinformed voters who vote. Think for example the Irish who tought the Lisbon treaty would enable abortion in their country. And four, the informed voters. To my opinion, the fourth group is too small during referenda”.

    Does this go for the original referendum in 1975. If it does where does it leave the result in your opinion. Or is this a one off case, because it confirms your wish to be in the eu?