Opinion: Looking forward to the EU referendum


With the legislation for the EU referendum now before parliament, that process is starting to feel real. I am thinking about what this might mean for Liberal Democrats, and the voice of liberal democracy.

In the General Election the consensus was not to campaign on Europe. That was probably wise, if counter-intuitive. Things are about to become very different.

In addition to the big question of which side will win, I had been thinking of the referendum in terms of its likely effect on the British political landscape — of the alliances that will form on both sides, and the possibility of splits in the Conservative party or defections leading to an early General Election, but am beginning to think more of this in terms of our distinctiveness.

There are profound reasons behind Liberal Democrat support for the EU. In bringing the “Yes” campaign into being we will be effectively inviting others onto our turf. Can we do something now to lay out our territory, both to boost the case for a “yes” vote, and so that we get the credit we deserve on this?

To help my own thinking, I jotted down some of the very general benefits of EU membership, and the first few were:

  • Freedom of movement and of opportunity;
  • Stability which allows people to live their own lives free from dull conformity, with room for lots of different cultures to co-exist;
  • Prosperity tied to community: freeing people from poverty but in a way that doesn’t diminish others;
  • Taking the decisions centrally that are best done centrally, but devolving as much as possible, so decisions are made as close as possible to the people affected by them;
  • Working constructively with people with whom there are profound differences, so that something can be built for the good of all that doesn’t trample minorities — it is interesting that this is a key part of how the EU works, and of what we brought to the coalition.

On that last point, we have taken a hammering for the coalition, but my sense is that this is because the British public is not yet used to politicians working together constructively: in time we will get the credit we deserve for 2010 — 2015. In pushing for people to get their minds around a more constructive style of European politics, we will, even without trying, be helping to rehabilitate the legacy of the coalition.

More generally, I am struck by the parallels between that list and the preamble to the Liberal Democrat constitution, which makes sense of the affinity we have for the EU

On the thorny topic of EU “reform”, the widespread UK story seems to be that the EU is bad and reform might make it bearable, but most of the rest of the EU “reform” has a positive sense: it is about continuing to develop the European project for the good of all the people’s of Europe. Change and reform have been part of the process all the way along the path from the formation of the European Coal and Steel Community to where we are today. That’s not about empire-building, but is about continuing to create opportunities and possibilities in a way that feels very Liberal.

Notwithstanding the bruising we feel at the moment, we are an outward-looking, internationalist party. When people vote “Yes” to staying in the EU will also be voting “Yes” to a raft of Liberal Democrat values. The referendum seems a golden opportunity to move from the language of “fightback” to clearly articulating the value of what we bring, at European, National and local levels. Yes, we will be pushing for a “yes” vote, but it is also worth thinking about what is needed to induce those who vote “yes” to Liberal Democrat values in the EU referendum to vote “yes” to them also in the next elections, whether those are European, national or local.

* Mark Argent was the Liberal Democrat candidate in Huntingdon Constituency in 2019 and blogs at markargent.com/blog.

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  • David Faggiani 10th Jun '15 - 5:08pm

    My Labour-voting friend and I were discussing back in 2014 how to win an EU Referendum for Staying In. We thought for a bit before we hit the jackpot. “Easy holidays/Cheap phone tariffs/The EU – keep it simple.” Boom. 65%+ majority for staying in.

    I’m only partly kidding.

  • @David Faggiani – to develop that theme. TV advertisement showing happy family whizzing through airport on holiday, interspersed with cold-war era type shots of the same family being quizzed, searched, prodded and poked and harassed by evil looking armed border guards,

  • Lawrence Fullick 10th Jun '15 - 5:30pm

    Good article. To do something about it start by looking at ldeg.org click on Referendum Team

  • jedibeeftrix 10th Jun '15 - 5:31pm

    The specific ideas you jotted down above I have no issue with, it would be difficult for any reasonable person to do so, but then they are quite anodyne if you will forgive me for saying so. Motherhood and apple-pie.

    So when you say:

    “but it is also worth thinking about what is needed to induce those who vote “yes” to Liberal Democrat values in the EU referendum to vote “yes” to them also in the next elections, whether those are European, national or local.”

    You pose the right question, but the core of the issue has not been addressed in the article.

    What kind of EUrope does Britain want to be part of?

    The electorate is extremely relaxed about being outside of the Euro, Schengen and common bailout mechanisms (economic liability), and there is no apparent clamour to join a common or foreign-policy legal regime. However, the convergence of the Eurozone and the expansion of the QMV represents a clear and present danger for a country that seeks to make its own decisions in these areas.

    How do you lead a reform agenda that keeps us within the EU and yet essentially sovereign in areas the British electorate prefer?

    Answer this question and you will win the argument with the electorate, and be rewarded commensurately.
    Fail this test and at best you will win the referendum (not the same as the above), and at worst you will end up non-EUropeans.

  • A friend of mine – not a member but always votes for us – is very pro European – but is going to vote to come out. Why? He argues the Tories stuffed us in the election – we did all the good things for the sake of the country and the country ditched us. So… who would get the blame when everyting goes tits up if we pull out? The Tories – who would benefit? Us. We would also miss out on those dire European election results. He does have a point

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jun '15 - 6:21pm

    We should sell the EU like a regulated financial product. Fair selling, not miss-selling.

    In order to help build an “emotional connection” with the EU a common language is going to be necessary. English is rapidly spreading across the world and in Europe and we need to take advantage of it. It is a massive strategic benefit to us and I hardly see any politicians talk about it.

    We should be pushing for the EU to expand its use of English and in return perhaps promise some further integration. The EU can be useful, but we are not really taking advantage of it.

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Jun '15 - 6:56pm

    I’d like to think that this referendum will be about what the value of EU IN/EZ OUT status is. That is the core of the issue to my mind. There is simply no prospect of the UK joining the EZ any time soon and the debate must now turn to what value there is to being EU IN/EZ OUT.

    It’s all about the future. On the most positive sense of it the, ‘vision,’ has to be something like advances in technology making the EU meaningful to those who currently are, ‘left behind,’ (for want of a better term). In 2025 we may for example have real-time translation technology. That, along with transport improvements would open the EU more than any treaty. It is technological advance that will really bring about ever closer union. My nephew hopping to work in Latvia, then Poland, then Spain using his language ear-piece….that’s a compelling vision and hope.

    But it’s not difficult to see a more negative vision. All too often the pro-EU argument has failed to engage with the the entirely reasonable criticism that the EU is just wonderful if you have a bubble-priced house, a job in a multinational, a BTL empire or a company that employs zero-hours labour. For everyone else (not just in the UK) not readily able to meaningfully take advantage of, ‘open,’ then there’s not much reciprocity in the picture. Frankly it’s not clear that there will be much more reciprocity to come. It really is not much use couching, say, free movement in terms of a week in Magaluf when free movement brings more readily to mind the gaping asymmetry in numbers moving East to West.

    It is, of course, the great irony of our time that what would kill UKIP stone dead is MORE free movement. If 3m young unemployed UK people all headed to Poland/Latvia/Bulgaria and got in-work benefits, housing, wages etc all the problems would vanish tomorrow.

    The question before us is whether in the future the EU and its, ‘open,’ world will become really and truly accessible to those who currently see a relationship lacking in reciprocity. Or at least that’s the question that I as a euro-agnostic will be dwelling on.

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Jun '15 - 7:11pm

    jedibeeftrix – ‘How do you lead a reform agenda that keeps us within the EU and yet essentially sovereign in areas the British electorate prefer?’

    Problem is though that I’m not sure I see that as possible. There’s loads of reform going on in the EU at the moment, almost all of it, reasonably, focused on making the euro more effective. Of 28 EU members, 19 are currently in the EZ. On 1st January 2019 that becomes 20. So 8 o28 are EU IN/EZ OUT – that’s a small but reasonably credible group. But of that 8, only the UK and Denmark have opt-outs. Sweden knocked the euro back in a referendum and the Bulgarians (I believe) have indicated that they will not seek to join the EZ, treaty notwithstanding at least for now. All the rest will be joining the EZ. Cameron will have his renegotiation in 2016, referendum in 2016/17 and it’s probably out of date by the next general election. Admittedly Greece might be out at some point.

    The only other option I can see for a vision of a strong EU IN/EZ OUT group is to expand – but I’m not sure I see that as politically credible.

    ‘Leading a reform agenda,’ is I think a red-herring. EU IN/EZ OUT is what it is – a small group in a much larger group. The real question is what is that status worth.

  • jedibeeftrix 10th Jun '15 - 7:19pm

    @ LJP – “Problem is though that I’m not sure I see that as possible…. The only other option I can see for a vision of a strong EU IN/EZ OUT group is to expand – but I’m not sure I see that as politically credible.”

    It is possible, we have achieved it in one (small but important) area already:


    There is no real alternative to achieving this reform that leaves us free of the effect of caususing resulting from ECB managed consensus using tools like the EBU.

    Well, there are two:
    1. Join the euro, along with all the rest, and accept a future of european governance.
    2. Leave the EU.

    EU-in / EZ-out without reform is not an option, it would essentially leave britain as a Sanjak, much as Greece once was under the Ottoman empire (and is again today). That is not a representative democracy by any stretch of the imagination.

  • One thing that absolutely has to be nailed is the lie that the UK can retain access to the single market while rejecting freedom of movement (usually meaning of people).

    The EU and EFTA (i.e. the EEA) are founded on the principle of free movement for goods, people, services and capital.

    If we reject freedom of movement, then we will be refused access to the single market (and rightly so).

    As P. J. O’Rourke (no lefty) said when covering the GE, the anti – European movement is really a rejection of the modern world.

  • Little Jackie Paper 10th Jun '15 - 8:08pm

    jedibeeftrix – It’s a good point to make. But I do think that the single market is a bit of a red-herring here. Whatever this referendum is about it’s not likely to be detailed product standard/rules. It’s just not a flashpoint. I don’t think that anyone credible would argue it is likely that an OUT UK would have free-rider access to the single market. Any number of other countries have some level of access.

    I’d certainly agree that EU IN/EZ OUT on current terms looks rather like the worst of all worlds though. It’s just what one does about that that is the matter at hand.

  • JUF,
    The problem isn’t that we would not have access to the free market because actually we import more than we export so there’s a vested interest in keeping that arrangement. The more likely problem is that we’ll start to get huge banking jitters if the result looks close and that is important because we don’t have much else economically.

  • “..the anti – European movement is really a rejection of the modern world.”
    For heaven’s sake people, get a grip.
    The UK needs to mature, stop dithering and make its own decisions, and ditch the EU and take its seat at the WTO.
    If we make the best jet engines in the world, they’ll sell anywhere. Same for the best German cars which we’ll buy (as ever). There will be NO trade issues, between sovereign countries that desire each other’s goods (it’s called a market!). Please stop this chicken little ‘the sky is falling’ nonsense, it really is immature.

  • jedibeeftrix 10th Jun '15 - 9:06pm

    @ LJP – It is not a red herring, fundamental ecomonic sovereignty is important, but only part of the puzzle.

    Legal sovereignty, and that of foreign policy are just two others, but in fairness that article dealt specifically with just the one.

    What does one do about it?

    Argue for full participation – a rocky furrow to plough for a party of eight MP’s in the teeth of visceral electoral opposition.
    Out – not appealing to the electorate either, but almost certainly more popular than the above.

    As stephen tall noted a few years back; david cameron is the best hope of staying in the EU with his reform agenda.

  • @John Dunn – but you’re only focussing on goods. Services represent 78% of our economy – and that means people. I’ve been involved in projects all over the world, and the EEA (EU + EFTA) is by far the best market to operate in, because you can put the right people on each project without having to worry about work permits or any of that nonsense.

  • @John Dunn – and I know of at least one $multi_million investment project that was going to be in the UK, except post the GE the company concerned aren’t prepared to risk finding that their assets are outside the EU, so now the project is going to Germany.

  • Have the SNP stated a position? If I were they, I’d be tempted to call on the Scots to boycott the referendum — leaving the decision on whether to stay or go firmly in the hands of the English. If the vote is to stay, the anti-Europe forces can’t blame it on the Scots; if the vote is for exit, then that brings the Scots that much closer to independence.

  • jedibeeftrix 10th Jun '15 - 10:50pm

    And you think this is a good thing, David?

  • I agree with you @Eddie Sammon that we need to sell the EU to the electorate fairly and not make out that the world is going to end if Britain leaves the EU. There are dozens of reasons why Britain is better off within the EU and we need to spell those reasons out rather than hiding behind fear of the unknown.

    The Yes campaign also needs to make sure it does not get dragged into arguing against UKIP miss-information (one particular favourite I heard was that European canned meat contains dog meat) – we need to be proactive and not reactive in our campaigning.

  • Eddie Sammon 10th Jun '15 - 11:22pm

    Many thanks Alex H. I agree that standing your ground in a debate is important. I thought this recently during the Labour leadership debates: if you are asked a silly question then just refuse to answer. People get dragged onto daft topics. Same with the EU.

  • David I
    The SNP win either way. If we stay in and get the out campaign blames the Scots they can say the English government is a divided mess and if there’s an out vote they can force another referendum probably with the backing of Europe and America. Fundamentally, the SNP have one goal and that is independence. Eventually they’ll get it. I suspect that The EU referendum will hinge on two factors A) immigration and B) the popularity of the government when its held. All the renegotiation stuff is neither here nor there. My gut instinct is that it will be very very close.

  • Andrew Purches 11th Jun '15 - 10:21am

    Since when,may I ask, has the State taken upon itself to rewrite treaties that have been openly, and largely supported by a majority? An international Treaty is a Treaty – ideally never to be broken, and we Brits should not be opening the door for other less savoury states to use our Referendum as an excuse to opt out of Treaty obligations. We are only following in the footsteps of Russia in its manipulation of the protest vote in the Crimea and Ukraine by supporting the holding of a referendum over the Treaty of Rome. Negotiate changes if at all feasible, but not under the threat of pulling out of our Treaty obligations. This is wrong,politically and morally so.

  • Alex H writes :
    “There are dozens of reasons why Britain is better off within the EU and we need to spell those reasons out rather than hiding behind fear of the unknown.”
    And I look forward to debating the background reality of those dozens of reasons to stay in the EU. Why not pick your best dozen, and make 12, LDV thread articles,.. one for each?. Let’s see where the real miss-information truly originates, and how each reason holds up to scrutiny?
    Let’s start the first one entitled ~ 1. EU Brexit and the risk to UK jobs.

  • John, here is a list of my top 12 (in no particular order)
    1. Freedom of goods and services without tariff
    2. Larger voice on the global economic stage
    3. Co-ordinated climate impact strategy
    4. Reduced food prices
    5. Increased EU- wide talent pool improving UK businesses
    6. Improved food standards and regulations
    7. Increased over-seas investment
    8. Exit would threaten UK jobs
    9. Exit would lead to greater political isolation/reduced political stature
    10. Exit would cost the UK economy billions in broken/unfulfilled contracts with other EU partners
    11. Exit would mean we would miss out of millions (if not billions) that will come out of the TTIP deal
    12. I like cheap holidays

  • O.K. Let’s pick your first one Alex H :
    1. Freedom of goods and services without tariff.
    A good few years ago my brother (who has done some work in China), and myself, sat with a blank piece of paper and worked out the costs of importing solar panels from China, as part of a business idea.
    We concluded that we could get a 40ft container of solar panels (exactly the same ones used today), offloaded onto Southampton Docks for about (easily), 35% of the cost they actually were being offloaded. Except for one problem :
    EU anti dumping tariffs !!
    So because of imposed EU blockages, the average UK householder is forced to pay probably twice the cost of a solar installation as it might otherwise cost. And of course the initial cost of a ‘solar set up’ is likely the main inhibiting factor. People fear that they won’t get a sufficient return over 20 years. So the government in its wisdom, has to give taxpayer subsidies in the form of feed in tariffs, and of course, Ed Davey, thought that Green Loans would be the answer.
    A far better, cheaper and more useful idea, would be to tell the EU to go shove their import tariffs where the sun don’t shine, (pun intended!), because the British consumer would benefit from cheaper solar power, and they would likely not need Green Loans or feed in tariffs to incentivise their decision?
    And Jobs ?
    Just imagine all those installation jobs we could have created, and all that cost effective free energy we could have derived across the UK’s housing stock, had it not been for EU red tape and tariffs, blocking the creation of decent technical well paying jobs and renewable energy, making the whole process much more expensive than it need be ?

  • Thanks for your comments John, why not write an article for the LDV stating why the UK should leave – its good to hear both sides of the argument

  • Peter Hayes 11th Jun '15 - 1:54pm

    To those who suggest the Norway option we should remind them what that means
    1 Freedom of movement just like now
    2 An opt out of only fishing and agriculture and no say on any other EU rules
    3 They pay more to the EU per head than the UK

    As for 2 do they have any agricultural exports other than timber? The UK has fishing areas which border on other countries, unlike Norway, so what happens to our deep sea boats?

  • @Peter Hayes – absolutely right. Point 1 is why the “out” camp are peddling a lie – the UK will not get access to the single market without accepting freedom of movement.

    @John Dunn – I’ve done three projects in Norway – all good examples of the advantages freedom of movement brings. The last time I had to get a work visa it wasted about a month and £5k. So if you were a business and the UK was outside the EU, would you employ UK people with those additional handicaps, or would you employ people who could work anywhere in the EU? It’s not a difficult decision is it?

    Hence your line that Brexit would not cost jobs certainly doesn’t hold true for IT.

  • John Dunn 8:48
    We make the best jet engines. Yes we are now making them in Singapore.
    In SE Asia an economic union is being formed-the AEC. This is happening in
    other parts of the world. An isolated Britain will find it harder and harder to
    gain access to these markets.

  • Peter Hayes writes :
    “The UK has fishing areas which border on other countries, unlike Norway, so what happens to our deep sea boats?”
    Let’s be honest here Peter, the broader truth is that our seas have been ‘Stolen’ by the EU resource grabbing policies, plus, it seems fair to say that the Common Fisheries Policy, has been an unmitigated, economic, social and environmental disaster for the North Sea and the fishing industry in the UK?
    And it’s getting worse, in that Fisheries is just one of a growing number of policy areas, and whole EU portfolios, where the UK *cannot* have any independent policy ; it can only legally do what the EU instructs us to do.
    P.S. Norway’s fishing and aquaculture industry is one of the largest exporters of seafood to 150 countries, and at 3 million tonnes of seafood each year. Norway does *not* suffer from being outside the EU,.. Far from it.

  • @John Dunn – also your comment about the tariff on imported goods from China implies that you think if the UK was outside the EU that there would be no import duties?

    In fact I rather suspect that there would be more. As Manfaring pointed out, the world is increasingly consolidating into a small number of regional trade blocs (Africa just announced the TFTA this week). Life for countries outside these blocs is going to be increasingly difficult.

    Countries that are members of these blocs will all have to adopt common rules to ensure that they function effectively. And since it’s pretty much impossible to divorce economics from politics, they will all acquire a political dimension over time.

    Trying to hark back to the some “golden age” of the past and trotting out the hoary old idea of the commonwealth is frankly silly. Most commonwealth countries have nothing in common with the UK apart from playing cricket, and regard our “shared history” (the British Empire) as occupation by an invader. They are quite sensibly joining the appropriate regional grouping. For the UK, that regional grouping is the EU.

    And we’re already members of the EU 🙂

    So let’s just embrace the EU and make the most of the opportunities it gives us, rather than carping from the sidelines like a bunch of silly old codgers.

  • “…Most commonwealth countries have nothing in common with the UK apart from playing cricket, and regard our “shared history” (the British Empire) as occupation by an invader…”

    This is so true. The myth of ‘The Commonwealth’ should have died years ago. It was always just a fig-leaf for imperial nostalgia which provided a regular Bread and Circus bunfight for the British Monarch to pretend she knew something about the world beyond Corgis and race tracks.

    In reality many Commonwealth countries do not even play cricket.

  • Neil Sandison 12th Jun '15 - 11:08am

    The real message we need to get over is the one about jobs .Not what business leaders think but how many jobs locally are dependent on European markets and anglo-european companies . I know looking round my own bit of the midlands that we have a host of Anglo -French ,Anglo -German ,Anglo -Italian enterprises .Many international companies in Great Britain use these shores for their pan European operations .As we saw at the last general election it is the pocket book and wallet that determines the outcome of elections .I am convinced it will be the same for any referendum.

  • @John Tilley “”Most commonwealth countries have nothing in common with the UK apart from playing cricket”. This is so true. The myth of ‘The Commonwealth’ should have died years ago. It was always just a fig-leaf for imperial nostalgia which provided a regular Bread and Circus bunfight for the British Monarch to pretend she knew something about the world beyond Corgis and race tracks In reality many Commonwealth countries do not even play cricket.”

    If the Commonwealth is a “myth”, then why, when membership is voluntary, are there so many members still in it? And why have Cameroun, Rwanda and Mozambique (non of which were British colonies) joined?

    Fundamentally what Commonwealth countries have in common with Britain is a legal system and (often) a form of government that is derived from British institutions. Many influential Commonwealth citizens have received an education and training in British schools, Universities and countries. There are still substantial family, sporting, cultural and trade links between Commonwealth countries not least through post-Imperial immigration and emigration.

    Trying to argue that the legacy of the British Empire is wholly bad and just “a regular Bread and Circus bunfight for the British Monarch “,with no good and no opportunity for improving links and understanding between peoples is short-sighted to put it politely.

  • Peter Hayes 12th Jun '15 - 9:30pm

    John Dunn, explain why the UK fishing fleets could fish in the east of the North Sea without agreements with Europe. Explain how the Irish Sea will be divided. Explain how the Channel will be divided. Do we need to go back to the fisheries protection vessels and cod wars? Or do we negociate an agreement with Europe and how are we strong enough to get better than now?

  • Peter Hayes 12th Jun '15 - 9:38pm

    More for John Dunn, the only reason Norway can export so much fish is they have no other countries bordering their fishing areas, should have added that to my previous reply.

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