As the Prime Minister, David Cameron embarks on his mission to reform the UK’s membership of the European Union (EU), in talks with other member states' leaders in Riga, Latvia, what will the British people get in terms of options in the upcoming referendum on the issue? As looks increasingly likely, the referendum will be next year, possibly coinciding with Scottish Parliamentary elections and elections for the Welsh and London Assemblies, on 5 May.
The actual question itself will be important, but the choices on offer will be the most crucial factor of all. We have been told already that we will be able to choose between whatever Cameron can negotiate and leaving the EU altogether, but will we get to stay in on the same terms we have now, and will we have a further ‘option of social justice and economic democracy to bring fairer and more resilient societies to Europe’ as the Green party would like?
First let’s look at what Cameron’s reforms might amount to. Cameron would like to get some agreement on limiting immigration into the UK, particularly from eastern Europe, but I’m sure he knows this will not be on table. Other European leaders and senior members of the European Commission have already said publicly that the free movement of people is non-negotiable and would need the agreement of all member states (possibly requiring referendums in those countries) in any case. So, pretty much a non-starter.
Ironically, it was the Tories that wanted to expand the EU to the east in the 1990s, to try and develop a counter balance to the Franco-German axis that has been the mainstay of the EU (and previous incarnations, the European Community and Common Market). One of those classic political cases of the law of unintended consequences!
Some European leaders, most notably the German Chancellor, Angela Merkel have signalled that there is room for some reforms to placate the British. Cameron will certainly want to protect the City of London’s financial sector from regulation, especially policies like the ‘Tobin’ or ‘Robin Hood’ tariff on internationally financial transactions, and he may well succeed here. He will also want a total opt out for the UK from employment regulations which aim to protect workers, but are derided as ‘red tape’ by the Tories. The UK already opts out to some extent of these regulations like the ‘working time directive’, so I would expect this to be achievable too.
Then there are environmental regulations, which Britain often falls foul of now like clean air and clean beaches regulations. I think Cameron might get some concessions here too.
Human rights could well be on Cameron’s wish-list as well. The new Tory government intends to replace the British Human Rights Act with a British Bill of Rights, but it is not clear whether they also aim to withdraw from the European Convention on Human Rights. Although the European Council oversees the Convention not the EU, the European Court does take the Convention into account when making judgements. So, to break free completely from human rights as defined by the European Convention, withdrawal will be necessary and some amendment to the UK’s EU membership status in this area will be needed. Cameron may get some concessions here for Britain since it would not unduly affect other member states.
If all of this comes to pass, will the referendum then be a ‘binary’ choice between Cameron’s reforms and exiting the EU altogether? Not much of a choice really.
We need four options on the referendum ballot paper. Leave the EU, stay in on Cameron’s negotiated reforms, staying in with no change to our current arrangements and a radical fourth option, along lines of the Green party’s vision for the EU.
I quote again from the Green party policy on the EU:
We recognise the value of the original goal of the founders of the European Communities, who sought to remove the threat of another war between European states. This has been distorted by vested political and economic interests into a union dominated by economic interests, which lacks democratic control, and promotes the goals of multinational corporations which are interested in profit not people, and which runs counter to the professed core values of the Union. We believe that the ecological challenges and stark inequalities the world faces present a potential new role for the EU as part of wider global co-operation.
b) bring peace and security to Europe, by promoting greater understanding and friendship between its peoples;
c) solve and prevent environmental problems, such as air pollution, which can best be resolved at the European level and work together to combat climate change and other international environmental problems;
e) reduce inequalities of wealth and disparities in quality of life between the regions of Europe, and between Europe and the rest of the world;
This provides the basis for a radical alternative argument for the coming months which will inevitably, depressingly descend into lowest common dominator language. We need to argue for this fourth option and a second preference vote on the referendum ballot paper.
If we had even the other three options mentioned above at the referendum, it is likely that people will second preference Cameron’s reforms if their first preference is out or to stay in as we are, because it will seem like a ‘middle way’. We must have a fourth radical option too, with a fall back second preference of staying in on current terms.
Everything is to play for now, let’s make some noise and demand to be heard, rather than stand by and watch everything that is good about the EU thrown away and get stuck with the worst corporate welfare bits.
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