Opinion: Referendum debate is a sideshow: the countdown to Britain’s real EU vote starts today

In or out?  With or without? Will they, won’t they? The sound and fury over a referendum on Britain’s EU membership has become almost deafening over the past few days. It is a confused debate driven by a small and virulent band of anti-Europeans. Their success lies in a dual strategy of shackling the issue to others of much wider public concern (such as immigration), while simultaneously blackmailing one of Britain’s great pro-European parties (the Conservatives) into adopting ever more anti-European positions – against their own traditions, intuition and better judgement.

Around Europe, the ‘British question’ is also furrowing brows – though the question on most of the rest of the world’s lips is why on earth we would want to leave in the first place. Ireland’s Taoiseach made clear that “Britain benefits from its membership of the EU, and the EU is better off with Britain.”

President Obama politely advised Brits that “you probably want to see if you can fix what’s broken in a very important relationship before you break it.” And Le Monde pithily summed up Continental confusion at Britain’s self-destructive narcissism:

We know originality is part of British DNA, the English in particular. But to push this delightful character trait to the point of leaving the EU would be a step which is hard to comprehend. For a very simple reason: Europe is British. … Ever since joining, Britain has shaped the EU with its own hand. … In today’s EU, power is in the hands of nation states. Westminster has less reason than ever to fear a European super-state which exists only in the gin-soaked nightmares of Tory MPs.

The tragedy of Britain’s referendum debate – apart from its questionable quality – is that it is a sideshow to the real questions being debated in the EU. How do we boost growth in post-austerity Europe? How can Britain guarantee full access to the Single Market outside an economic union?  And are current democratic checks and balances sufficient, or do we need a rethink? These are the questions we should be discussing and on which we should be engaging with our partners.

In precisely one year’s time, Brits will get the chance to vote in a national election on their future in Europe in the next European Parliament elections on 22 May 2014. Everyone gets a vote, and every vote counts. But in this vote they will have to chance to address the substance of these questions – and have a direct say in how Europe works. Our MEPs are our voice in Europe: over consumer safety, animal welfare, aid for the developing world and clean fuels. They have an equal say with national governments over EU legislation and the European budget.

Yet according to a recent study, 57% of people in the UK are unable to correctly identify that British members of the European Parliament are directly elected by British voters. It is time to make people more aware. This process has to start in Britain’s schools, but Lib Dems can also do their bit by raising awareness when campaigning in their own communities. The countdown to Britain’s real EU vote starts today.

* Giles Goodall is a Lib Dem European Parliamentary Candidate for South East England.

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27 Comments

  • We definitely need more of a counter-argument out there to promote the E.U…..everything I read is so one sided against it!

  • Tony Faithfull-Wrigh 22nd May '13 - 6:02pm

    We need to ensure that we have every positive fact and figure from Head Office in our hands. It must be delivered in a way that even the dumbest laymen can understand to the grass roots level in every Ward.
    The Misconception and Propaganda being spit out by Tory and UKIP members is already getting into peoples mind set.
    We have to understand the the ordinary man in the street does not realize the vital importance of our membership of the EU.
    Of vital importance is having the answers to the questions and fear mongering that will inevitably be spewed out against the EU.

  • Dave – it’s not a bad idea but how many people do you actually reach (2000 in a good day?). The problem with the “lets fight the EP elections on Europe” brigade is that they massively overestimate what our Euro campaign actually consists of. I bet for a vast chunk of the country it will be an an unaddressed A4 election address at best.

    In 2009 we got an unaddressed A5 – and I don’t know where there step change of resources to massively alter that is going to come from.

  • @jedibeeftrix – Stop trying to create false choices. The fact that the EU member states have decided to tighten up existing standards doesn’t make them more or less sovereign. Nor does a decision by them to create new ones do so either.

  • Wasn’t it Lib Dem Policy to have an in out referendum only a few years ago?

  • Malcolm Todd 22nd May '13 - 8:01pm

    Haven’t you got tired of posting that same comment yet, Jedi? I don’t know how many people even read it all the way through the first couple of times, but it must have reached the auto-skip point for almost everyone by now.

  • Giles Goodall 22nd May '13 - 8:44pm

    @Dave: Good idea – I think our message definitely needs to be a positive one, combining benefits and reforms.
    @Julia: There are plenty of good arguments, it’s getting them across to people that’s not always easy!
    @Tony: This is a very good point. We need to to make sure all our members and activists have easy access to all the benefits of EU membership and rebuttals of all the usual anti arguments. This is certainly something I’ll be doing in my campaign.

  • @Jedi
    You might at least read it through to the end yourself. You’ve duplicated the second last para just as you have done every other flippin’ time you’ve posted it.

  • Peter Hayes 22nd May '13 - 9:29pm

    A good source of replies to UK press lies is
    http://ec.europa.eu/unitedkingdom/blog/index_en.htm
    Even the Sun prints their replies sometimes!

  • As always, Giles, an excellent Europe piece. I’d like to back up Dave, Julia and Tony … that we need clear, pro-European points and arguments; I actually tried to find this recently and couldn’t, even on the website of the European Movement UK! Just an A4 page or two or solid, evidenced, positive points in favour of the UK’s continued participation in Europe, regularly updated as new stats and facts are published.

    I’d also like to echo those comments about jedibeeftrix. I read your comment, JBF, and tbh I didn’t understand it (and I have a BA and an MSc, so I am not thick) – plus. the repetition on the penultimate paragraph is sloppy.

  • Peter Chivall 23rd May '13 - 2:21pm

    Peter Tyzack is correct, no amount of in-campaign leafletting is going to affect voters driven by 25 years of lying propaganda from the Europhobe press. Peter Heyes is correct http://ec.europa.eu/unitedkingdom/blog/index_en.htm is a good source of rebuttal material, but is must be used throughout the year, and throughout the Party. I have suggested to my Local Party that they put a small ‘Fact Box’ in every Focus delivered in our Target Wards – the first is to explain that the European Parliament is actually elected democratically and has real power of co-determination with the Commission. It’s only a little and it’s five years late, but we need to remember that the Euros are on the same day as the locals in 2014 and we could see a disaster with good LibDems in Unitaries and Boroughs losing seats to unknown UKIPs riding on the back of a big UKIP turnout for the Euros.
    Nexy May will also be our last chance to make a pitch before 2015, when, even if our targetting preserves most of our Westminster seats, we might see a yet further decline in our Council representation elsewhere. We cannot afford to sit around wittering about the problem: we need to follow John Padoe’s famous dictum “Put it on a piece of paper and put it through the letterbox”. and that means NOW.

  • Well of course the referendum on continued EU membership will get tangled up with all sorts of other unrelated issues especially when, as now, the tide is running strongly in favour of ‘none-of-the-above’. That’s the problem with referenda. Farage is skilful at the exploiting this politically; Lib Dems seem surprised, even slightly miffed, that it should be so suggesting a curious naivety about how the world works.

    But it goes beyond that. Giles asks: “And are current democratic checks and balances sufficient, or do we need a rethink?” That’s a question that fairly accurately reflects where the Lib Dems collectively are at. The message from the public is very clearly and loudly NO and YES to the two parts of the question. That’s been the case for many years now but it’s a message that’s NOT been received at Lib Dem HQ. The continuing silence leads to the inevitable – and as far as I can see correct – view that the Lib Dems are, in practice, just propping up the EU establishment irrespective of how bad it is. And it is pretty bad at almost every level; it’s a cop out to blame it all on a partisan Murdoch press.

    Incidentally, while I’m sympathetic to the idea of marshalling a list of pro-EU points and arguments to put before the public, I don’t think it’s an approach that will work. For one thing much of what is presented as ‘fact’ is actually scaremongering opinion on both sides. And what the facts actually are is itself contended by which I mean that UKIP and Murdoch can make up ‘facts’ faster than anyone can refute them. Unless you can get a large majority of the electorate to sit down and concentrate hard to work out for themselves which ‘facts’ are true and which are not then any number of facts aren’t going to swing opinion.

    But there’s an ever deeper problem with ‘facts’. It’s a strategy that assumes that voters are, as many economists wrongly suppose, coldly rational calculating machines evaluating the utility of available options based on the available facts. In reality they will go mainly with their emotional response which is simply not addressed by any quantity of facts. I think people are scared by the EU because of its evident remoteness and its general out-of-controllness. I think that is a very reasonable response, especially now that the fundamental design flaws of the euro have been exposed while the vast destruction wrought on the periphery has become a staple of the daily news.

    If I am even vaguely right about this it suggests an alternative strategy. We need to argue that power across the board should be devolved to the lowest level that’s possible and sensible. Inter alia, that means Michael Gove not telling teachers how to teach and it also means that the EU should do a lot less; doing only those things which everyone agrees are best done in Brussels. At the same time the EU should be expected to do what it does a lot better and stop its bureaucratic empire building. If a new improved EU becomes the vehicle whereby Europeans hang together rather than hang separately in a dangerous world then there is a chance that people will start to feel an emotional connection – and support will follow.

  • Michael Parsons 24th May '13 - 12:27am

    First I don’t see any signs of a “post austerity Europe” and the scarcely hidden panic among the IMF etc. as to the consequences of a possible revolutionary backlash seem to confirm that.

    Second, we Lib Dems did call for an in-out EU referendum of course, but like so much policy this seems to have been forgotten. Anyway it would be an absurd exercise – when has a “no” vote at a referendum ever been honoured by the EU political class? Iceland shows the way – ditch the bankers, face down the resulting threats, and rebuild: it will be less painful in the end. Since we import more from EU than we sell there, a threat of sanctions will bring them to heel. We might even replace our wretched business leaders by local firms an d leadership genuinely committed to British employment and production, and ending the subordination of all aims to “profit taking” through share deals and tax-avoidance and instead the institutionalisation of more useful social aims by a much-needed structural reform of company law, who knows?

  • Paul in Twickenham 24th May '13 - 6:59am

    Who needs to lie about Europe?

    Greece has 70% youth unemployment. It’s only growth industries are prostitution and shisha production.

    In four regions of Spain – Ceuta, Andalucia, Extremadura and Canarias – unemployment is over 33%. In those same regions, youth unemployment is over 60%.

    In Italy 23.9% of young people are NEETs.

    Across the EA17 there have now been 5 consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth. In the EU27 this abysmal record has been punctuated by a single quarter (Q3 2012 with +0.1%) of tiny growth. That isn’t just a recession, it’s looking remarkably like a depression.

    The abysmal mishandling of the collapse of the Cypriot banking sector by the Eurogroup and the consequent chaos around the “bail-in” has created a precedent that further undermines confidence in the EU banking sector, if that is even imaginable.

    While the whole of the EZ languishes in recession/depression, the commission demanded a budget increase of 6.85% for 2013.

    The idea that the EU would impose punitive tariffs on the UK were it to leave is ridiculous. As is often noted, the Eurozone is Britain’s largest export market. But Britain is the Eurozone’s largest export market too – bigger than the USA or China: UK – €213bn, USA €200bn, China €115bn. No one is going to buy the line that the EU will cut off their noses to spite their faces.

    As it happens, I very much wish the UK to remain in the EU. But we need to begin by facing up to the facts. They make grim reading.

  • Giles Goodall 24th May '13 - 10:45am

    I agree with all the Pauls about sources of facts and the need to get these through to voters whenever possible. But GF is also right that winning the rational argument is not enough – we need to win the emotional one too. This is especially true when UKIP’s success is built almost entirely on emotional messages (basically a mix of fear, nostalgia and f*** them all) with scant, if any, regard for facts. When you do confront them with hard facts, their arguments come tumbling down – as we’ve seen on the few occasions where Farage has been properly grilled in interviews.

  • Giles Goodall 24th May '13 - 11:06am

    Sorry, I meant all the Peters + Paul!

  • “When you do confront them [eurosceptics], with hard facts, [on the EU], their arguments come tumbling down.”
    Any links to those hard facts?
    Indeed, did anyone manage to put together the letter box size, bullet point list of benefits of EU membership that I asked for about four months ago? Could it be that it is a struggle to outline the benefits of EU membership, because,
    ~ they do not exist,
    ~ are tenuous, and based on fear rather than fact,
    ~ are based on supposition of what might happen on exit, rather than evidence?
    ~ beyond the wit of the best political spinners to spin positively?
    There is plenty of talk on LDV, about ‘….we must show the benefits of the EU,… blah,..blah’, but where is the beef? Eventually, someone will have to stare at that blank A4 and list those benefits.
    How about now?

  • Giles Goodall 24th May '13 - 3:08pm

    @John Dunn: pro-Europeans are doing this every day of the week. If you follow me on Twitter or Facebook you’ll get plenty. Most of our MEPs also have such lists on their websites, such as Catherine Bearder’s (http://bearder.eu/en/article/2013/684944/europe-day-highlights-eu-strengths-in-the-south-east) and Bill Newton-Dunn’s to give just a couple of examples (http://www.newton-dunn.com/about-the-eu/top-6-benefits-of-british-membership-of-the-eu.html)

  • So Giles :
    Catherine Bearder writes :
    “And between 2007 and 2013, the EU ploughed £23m into the South East economy, while the European Investment Bank invested £2.5bn during the same period.”
    That ‘ploughed’ money, originated, as tax here in Britain. It’s our money that the EU are ‘paternally’ giving us back !. Why do we give them 50 million per day, just so they can skim off the top, and give us back 35 million or so, with strings attached as to how we can spend (OUR OWN MONEY!) ?
    Bill Newton-Dunn : Just a sample of Bill’s EU benefits :
    “The EU’s biggest foreign policy success is spreading European values, peace, security and prosperity across the continent, most recently through enlargement in 2005 to include 10 new EU member states. TheUKremains a leading proponent of further enlargement to the Western Balkans,IcelandandTurkey.”
    Is Greece an example of this spread of peace, security and prosperity?
    “EU action via ‘Frontex’ at Europe’s external borders helps to combat illegal migrant flows into the Union, many of whom intend to travel to the UK.”
    Frontex is merely another pointless layer of expensive ‘admin’. They have no power over border movements.
    I could list many examples but all of them, one way of another, can be identified by :
    ~ A dubious spin on the reality of what is actually happening on the ground (in peoples real lives), in Europe
    ~ Ignores levels of two way trade between Britain and Europe
    ~ Ignores unemployment levels across Europe
    ~ Ignores things that would be possible anyway, without the overarching expense, and suffocating Federal theft, of each nations sovereignty.
    ~ Ignores things that were part of the original ideal of the EEC ( which is what we actually wanted, and voted FOR ).
    ~ Off shores the centre of certain crime beyond Europe’s borders, but does nothing to eradicate it.
    ~ Hides the blockages to world trade, implemented by the EU. ( e.g. – we could have much cheaper (green), Solar electricity, were it not for draconian EU tariffs on Chinese PV panels)
    ~Hides a myriad of pointless European vanity projects and ‘white elephants’, and the vast waste of taxpayer money.
    ~ Requires a level of authority and management, which means that we lose control over what we can do within our own borders.
    I asked, where are the hard facts, and got none, but instead, the spurious nature of this ‘sleight of hand’, and spin, will not wash with the voting public for sure.

  • David John Tough 24th Jul '13 - 6:06pm

    I am appalled by english anti europe attitudes a complete disrespect for our europe friends and partners. Alas a nation that will not let go of the past

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