EU Referendum: Let’s answer the question

The European Referendum question asks “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” Voters are not being asked whether we accept David Cameron’s renegotiation proposals or the (draft) European Council Agreement. Nor are we being asked our opinion on the crises in the Eurozone and Schengen areas.

Just as Wilson’s 1975 renegotiation was promptly forgotten during the 1975 referendum campaign, we need to put Cameron’s renegotiation behind us. Both were risky exercises to paper over splits within their respective parties. Although Cameron’s renegotiation is subject to greater public scrutiny than in 1975, the referendum question does not ask us to unpick, let alone approve, it. The Leavers cite the Eurozone and Schengen crises as main reasons why we should leave the EU, yet we are not members of either group. How can we leave groups we aren’t part of?

We are being asked whether we should remain in EU areas in which we do participate. As Liberal Democrats, we know our EU membership benefits us. As part of the world’s largest market, UK firms can export freely to more than 500 million affluent consumers. Each UK household is better off by a net £2,660 per annum in terms of more jobs and foreign investment (CBI, 2013). If we leave, Credit Suisse recently predicted a recession with a 1-2% drop in GDP.  

Alone the UK, the world’s fifth largest economy with 2% of global GDP, would have less weight in international trade negotiations. The UK would be a less attractive destination for foreign investment as we are no longer part of the world’s largest market with 30% of global GDP.

The UK influences and agrees all applicable EU legislation through the participation of our elected ministers in the EU Council and elected members in the European Parliament. Non-members such as Norway and Switzerland have to adopt EU legislation, full free movement and pay just under what we do for access to the Single Market. Do we want to pay and have no say? If we vote leave, we lose control.

With NATO, the EU has contributed to spreading peace, prosperity and democracy in Europe. Armed conflict between any EU state is now unthinkable. The UK cannot combat international crime and terrorism, and climate change alone. EU regulation curbs banking excesses, reduces consumer prices, and tax avoidance. EU social legislation provides for more holidays, maternity rights, equal pay and a safer working environment.

A vote to leave the EU would throw the future of the UK into doubt. The SNP would likely win a second Scottish independence referendum and the Northern Ireland peace process could be undermined. Our global influence would diminish. The EU without the UK and EU neighbours might be even more susceptible to destabilisation by a resurgent Russia.

The leavers are unable to offer, let alone agree, a viable alternative to EU membership. We know what Remain looks like (the present) but we do not know what leave looks like. Eurosceptics are calling for an uncertain leap into the dark. Lib Dems need to broaden the debate and campaign on these merits of remaining in. By answering the referendum question, we increase the chances of remaining in and help build the Fightback.

* Nick Hopkinson is chair of the Liberal Democrat European Group (LDEG) and former Director, Wilton Park, Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

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14 Comments

  • nigel hunter 10th Feb '16 - 10:10am

    True. Broaden the debate into the public domain, via leaflets , surveys and use the info obtained to build up our vote.

  • Richard Underhill 10th Feb '16 - 10:48am

    Harold Wilson lost a general election because of the balance of payments deficit. Jumbo jets had been purchased and the costs put into one month’s fugures. If they had been leased over several years the numbers would not have spiked and looked so bad.
    Nowadays the balance of payments figures do not seem to attract headlines, but the physical figures are still bad, although “invisible” exports continue to partially redress the balance.
    The “invisibles” are at great risk if the UK leaves the EU. The Bank of England is setting aside huge sums for fear of Brexit. The government is not admitting that contingency planning is happening in writing, for fear of FoI, but it is apparently happening verbally. There is therefore a risk to “confdence” and to sterling’s exchange rate with the US dollar, etc.
    There must be risks to the economies of the other EU member states. Those who toy with Brexit are playing a game of chicken. Why did the chicken cross the road?

  • Malcolm Lewis 11th Feb '16 - 8:31am

    There are some good points here as to why the UK would be better off to remain in, as you say, the areas of the EU we are actually a part of. However, it turns my stomach when the social legislation card is played. Do you really think Britain is incapable, through its elected Parliament, of deciding on the merits of each one of the regulations you refer to? Is it really a good argument to say that the UK should be dictated to, as to what is in its citizens best interests?
    I think sovereignty will be a key issue in the referendum, and vague notions of ‘internationalism’ will simply not wash with many. It’s something that the Lib Dems ought to bury for now along with their old support for Britain to adopt the Euro. There are much more persuasive arguments available.

  • I have some sympathy with the writer. It is true that we are not in Schengen or Euroland. But, in deciding whether we do or do not wish to remain in the EU, we cannot but be affected by awareness of EU’s very questionable handling of financial and migration issues. Euroland was set up carelessly and has been monitored carelessly. It did not keep to the rules by which it was created: hence the major problem in Greece. Schengen seemed a good idea at the time and mushroomed from a small group in Western Europe to the majority of the EU – when times were good and population movements were reasonable. It seems not to have seen any need for a firm external border, making itself vulnerable to the influx of needy people in recent times. It may be unfortunate, but this is the EU as it is, and I understand the hesitations of even some internationally minded people.

  • Nick Hopkinson 11th Feb '16 - 3:21pm

    Thanks to all who commented so far. A few reactions:

    1. On sovereignty, there are popular myths and misunderstandings about how the EU works, including that the UK Parliament is dictated to. We pool our sovereignty with other nations in the EU, we (let alone our Parliament) don’t lose it. The UK Government and our representatives in the European Parliament, both elected by British citizens, make and influence EU decisions. According to Independent Vote Watch, only 6 per cent of decisions (mostly on the EU budget) between 2009 and 2014 in the European Council were ‘lost’ by the UK. The UK has secured notable successes such as advancing the Single Market and enlarging the EU, and we have secured opt-outs from the Eurozone and Schengen.

    2. It is true to say that if we remain in, our membership will evolve. However, leaving the EU would involve far more fundamental, and adverse, changes. By being at the EU table, we are shaping and reforming the EU, and the terms of our membership, on an ongoing basis.

  • Nom de Plume 11th Feb '16 - 3:49pm

    They need to sort the migrant crisis out. It could cause the whole thing to unravel. With or without a Brexit. As far is sovereignty is concerned, I think the Eurozone is heading towards a form federalism, firstly fiscal and then political. The dynamics of a single currency dictate it. The cynic in me thinks this was the plan all along. Britain needs to ensure that a two speed speed Europe works. The Tories can choose whatever friends they want in the European Parliament.

    It is difficult to have a meaningful debate on the relative merits of membership because of the complexity of the thing. It is easy to pick things you do or don’t like. I would simply like to note that protectionism does not work; that isolation is not splendid and that I can not see or have not heard of any viable alternative. There is no free lunch.

  • There is no alternative to cooperation with other countries, especially neighbours – any other way could turn the clock back to the dark days of the early and mid 20th Century. The question is, should it all be “backroom deals” or should it have a democratic basis. We are Democrats – the clue’s in the name. Get out there and sell it, people!

  • There is no alternative to cooperation with other countries, especially neighbours

    But there’s a difference between cooperation, and handing over sovereignty.

    For instance, I might decide to cooperate with my neighbours in a neighbourhood watch scheme, or to reduce litter, but there’s no way I would join them in a co-operative to ‘maintain the look of the area’ where we set up a democratic council that would enable them to outvote me on what colour I am allowed to paint my house.

    With the EU, we are in the situation that our neighbours can, by a majority vote, overrule our décor choices — this is not necessary for cooperation and not acceptable.

  • “With the EU, we are in the situation that our neighbours can, by a majority vote, overrule our décor choices — this is not necessary for cooperation and not acceptable.” and also decides who can come into your house?

  • P.A.J.Williams 18th Feb '16 - 6:28pm

    In the event a NO Vote took the day in the coming referendum, BUT by only (SAY) a 1/4 of 1%. Would the Government still be obliged to pull out of the EU- Taking into account the poor turn outs we see in most General Elections !!

  • Richard Underhill 28th Feb '16 - 11:43pm

    The Mail on Sunday has five letters from named readers with a variety of opinions, but a consistent written style. Should we be cynical about page 95?

  • The migrant crisis and terrorism in Europe must have distorted the referendum debate. Should we be asked, in this climate, to decide on EU membership? Brexiteers may think that this is just the right time to vote because the EU’s poor management of migration is sufficient reason for wishing to leave. The EU is clearly not designed to cope with a mass influx of people. Bringing forward the referendum may have been a big mistake. I would have wished for more time to see how the EU shapes up to the migration challenge before the referendum vote.

  • @Dav – “But there’s a difference between cooperation, and handing over sovereignty.”
    But it was a sovereign Westminster who decided, with no outcry at the various times it voted for the UK’s acceptance of sovereignty ‘grabbing’ treaties. I suspect there are many in the Leave camp, who have their fingers crossed that Hansard isn’t examined…

    “For instance, I might decide to cooperate with my neighbours in a neighbourhood watch scheme, or to reduce litter, but there’s no way I would join them in a co-operative to ‘maintain the look of the area’ where we set up a democratic council that would enable them to outvote me on what colour I am allowed to paint my house.”
    We already have these schemes, they are known as ‘Conservation areas” and “Article 4 Directions”/Permitted development…

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