This is not likely to win me any votes, but I am proudly pro-Europe and in favour of our continued membership of the EU. That doesn’t make me an apologist for every aspect of the EU: the EU could definitely operate more transparently, efficiently and effectively, and we as Liberal Democrats should say so more often and with more conviction.
Nevertheless, our main challenge has to be to win hearts and minds in favour of our broader membership of the EU, and reverse the completely poisonous anti-European narrative. So many of those who were so indignant this summer about Mr Murdoch’s excessive and nefarious power, seem all too happy to swallow his carefully calculated anti-European narrative hook line and sinker.
Interesting isn’t it, that those who are anti-Europe tell us that they want to protect British sovereignty on the one hand, and then effectively cede sovereignty to a US citizen – and others with a reactionary agenda – who control our media and thus dictate the terms of debate on this and other issues? At least we can vote out our MEPs; we can’t vote out Murdoch and co! But I digress…
I am passionate about our membership of the EU, but I am equally passionate about allowing the British public to decide the future of that membership. An ‘in-out’ referendum is important for democracy, but it would also act as a catharsis. It would force those who take cheap shots at Europe whilst not actually wanting us to withdraw, to face up to realities. Which brings me to the debate today in Parliament…
…MPs will vote in the House of Commons on a Backbench Business Motion calling for a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. I will be voting against this motion and against the calls for a referendum. Many people will remember that I lost my place in the Shadow Cabinet in the last Parliament because I voted in favour of a referendum specifically on the Lisbon treaty, and I firmly stand by that. The best way to lance the boil of this unnecessarily poisonous relationship with the EU from the British side would be to have an ‘in-out’ referendum. It’s vital that our relationship with the EU is one that the British people consent to – so I am strongly in favour of a referendum, but I’m equally firmly of the view that it shouldn’t be now!
Earlier in the year at the height of the campaign on the referendum on the Alternative Vote, Conservatives complained that a referendum on a constitutional issue was a distraction when the country has such a huge budget deficit. I didn’t buy that argument of course, but following that logic – and in the context of the ongoing economic crisis both in Britain and across the EU – a referendum at this moment on whether we should withdraw our membership of the EU, would be a lot worse than a distraction. It would create massive instability, seriously affect market confidence and add an even greater strain to our economy. It would be a gross act of navel-contemplation and would damage our relationship with our neighbours at the very worst time. Far from being a distraction this would actually be downright destructive.
Think of it this way: suppose you were opposed to the British Empire in 1941 (and I would have been!) and wanted to see self-determination for every part of it, you’d still probably put that concern on hold until you’d won the war – you’d think that dealing with the empire question was a distraction at a time of national and international emergency. I see a referendum on the EU and then our collective ‘war’ against the economic nightmare we face in very much the same light.
So please don’t allow the right wing of the Conservative party to claim today that they are acting out of patriotism. They are not. They are indulging an obsession at a time when their country needs them to act in a more grown up fashion. Voting for the motion today will be an anti-patriotic act when tens of thousands of people face losing their jobs and their homes. The EU is a matter of concern to millions of people, but if you want to know what really keeps Britain awake at night, it’s the economy stupid.
That said, I do still want to give the British public an opportunity to vote in a referendum. That must happen the moment that there is a significant treaty change, which is what we committed to in our manifesto, but please let’s not go there now while we are trying to rescue the economy and doing so alongside our neighbours.