David Herdson: Why there’ll be no EU referendum anytime soon

David Herdson: Why there’ll be no EU referendum anytime soon

Where do we stand after the big vote?

The Coalition’s reform requiring all future EU treaties that transfer power to the EU to be put to a referendum was intended both as a brake on UK involvement in EU integration, and as a landmine under the kind of government that might be inclined to do that – either they’d have to repeal the Act or face the public. It might be just as much a landmine beneath both government parties too.

The simple problem is that for the pro-European parties – Labour and the Lib Dems – the public is not on their side. There’s certainly no appetite for increased integration and there’s plenty of enthusiasm for sticking two fingers up at the EU in what’s seen as a a cost-free vote (hence the large UKIP vote in the EP elections, which then melts as soon as serious elections arrive).

The Tories would have a similar but slightly different problem. It would be next to impossible for any Tory PM to sign an integrationist treaty because he or she would be obliged to campaign for its ratification, which would mean being at odds with both the public and – to an even greater extent – the Party. Even a treaty which repatriated powers would be difficult to ratify without a public vote if the public came to believe it was entitled to one, and that belief probably exists. Experience shows that nuance in such commitments doesn’t count for much.

    Even worse for the Tories (while in government), UKIP would be likely to dominate the No campaign. It would give them a national prominence they’ve so far failed to achieve and institutionalise co-operation between them and Conservative rebels.

    The reality is that the division in the Conservative Party is not between Europhiles and Eurosceptics; it’s between those who want less involvement with the EU and those who want no involvement.

That few MPs have openly advocated withdrawal is more down to it being a bit of a side-issue as far as the public are concerned (and practicalities are involved), and institutional memories of the damage the Maastricht debate did.

So why then the hints of a referendum on EU membership? One possibility is that it’s simply red meat being thrown to Eurosceptics after a difficult Autumn for the Conservatives. A second is that the leadership may have decided that when the time comes, it may be that a referendum would close down the debate after the vote had been held – not an assessment I’d concur with. The third, and most intriguing, is that the Tories might trump UKIP and advocate No themselves were such a vote to be held, particularly if the result of the Eurozone crisis is virtually a federal state.

I strongly suspect that the Red Meat explanation is as far as it goes, for now. There is far too much at stake to open that particular can of worms in earnest, not just for this government but also for any future one.

David Herdson

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