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The Politics of Simple Solutions

In a presentation to the London Academy of Diplomacy’s Diplomatic Forum, Dr Andrew Glencross examines the flawed logic of a referendum on EU membership

In 2013, David Cameron announced his intention to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. The reason the Prime Minister pledged this was to buoy the Conservative Party against the rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). This is where the notion of Brexit – Britain’s withdrawal from the EU – stems from.

Britain’s first referendum on whether to withdraw from the EU took place in 1975 (two years after it joined), and the electorate expressed significant support for EEC membership, with 67 per cent in favour on a 65 per cent turnout. In a 2015 Chatham House/YouGov poll, 60 per cent of the British public welcomed holding a referendum. But why is this the case? What can be achieved through a referendum? Would a referendum solve problems or just create more difficulties?

How far have we moved on EU integration since the first referendum in 1975? Many of the arguments used in 1975 are the same as those used today:

• Britain pays too much to the EU and gets too few benefits in return

• Britain must stay aloof from EU integration

• Britain must renegotiate terms of membership

• Britain must restore to its citizens the right

  to decide on membership.

David Cameron’s 2015 strategy covers the last two points.

So this begs us to ask the following question: why hold a referendum now?

British exceptionalism

The relative success of UKIP and increasingly right-wing Conservative party members has resulted in the wish to hold a referendum to consolidate the party.  This taps into a tradition of ‘British exceptionalism’ exemplified by Winston Churchill when he declared: “We are in Europe but not of it.” This 1930s sentiment was re-stated by former Conservative leader and Foreign Minister William Hague: “We are in Europe but not run by it.” Basically, Britain sees the EU as a utilitarian partnership, but resists the normative ideal of European integration.

The UK was influential in supporting EU enlargement in 2004 and was also successful in gaining opt-outs from EU measures, such as the euro, the Common Agricultural Policy and the Schengen Area. Nevertheless, as David Cameron said in his speech in 2013, democratic acceptance of the legitimacy of the EU in Britain is “wafer thin.” He also expressed concern about the terms of European membership, regardless of the opt-out deals the UK has made.

The ‘knowledge deficit’

Another key feature of British scepticism about the EU is the ‘knowledge deficit’. It is the idea that people don’t understand the policy nuances of European legislation; a feat that demands the knowledge of a lawyer and the experience of a diplomat. This was already a problem in 1975. People did not understand the details of what integration involves, and that situation continues today.

The problem is the British people tend to see the EU through a pragmatic utilitarian lens (EU = more trade) rather than a normative lens (greater political and economic integration is better for Britain as a member of the EU).

Distrust of political elites and its effects on EU

Following the 1975 referendum, the Labour government was able to arrange a renegotiation of terms with the EU. That was a mandate showing real democratic legitimacy. However, in 2015 there is much less trust among the British towards political elites in general and especially in the EU. Much of Britain’s scepticism and diffidence regarding the EU is shared by other EU countries, including the Netherlands and Germany.  There are two outcomes of this scepticism. One is the fragmentation of party politics, which has led to the rise of minority right-wing parties in France and the Netherlands, as well as the UK. Second is the focus of these right-wing parties on a single issue – immigration.

The instrumentalisation of immigration

Immigration is seen as a by-product, or in some quarters a central feature, of EU enlargement. Once you have EU enlargement, the principle of free movement of people means that people from member countries with a lower GNP will want to migrate to members with higher GNP, and there is a feeling that this has been engineered by political elites. As a result, the principle of the free movement of people becomes problematic, especially for left-wing parties looking to shore up their working class vote. So the right-wing parties instrumentalise immigration and play on the fears of working class voters, suggesting the key to their ailments is immigration in order to attract their votes.

It is no surprise then that since David Cameron’s 2013 speech promising a referendum, top of the renegotiation agenda has been renegotiating the principle of the free movement of people, because that is the one that is linked to immigration and the wishes of people seduced by the populist anti-immigration parties.


for renegotiation

To get a positive referendum result the British government had to get the leaders on board (then as now, Paris and Berlin) and sell them a package that suggested Britain didn’t want to change too much and didn’t want to roll back the core principles. In 1975 the government sought non-treaty changes and changes in budgetary conditions concerning food imports from outside the community (eg from the Commonwealth). The impact on Britain’s contributions was minimal (especially compared to Margaret Thatcher’s radical reforms ten years later) but it enabled the government to sell a successful EC reform package to please British voters.

Based on the experience of 1974/75, the successful renegotiation prospects are not good. Three years ago the FCO prepared a report comparing European competences with what Britain got out of it. The resulting 3,000 page report revealed ‘no smoking gun’, i.e. nothing that would justify radical reform or withdrawal, and was consequently buried. Attempts to change elements of the EU operation were not successful. Not long after the report was compiled, several Conservative MPs wrote to David Cameron requesting that Parliament should have the right to automatically veto the implementation in Britain of laws voted under the ‘ordinary legislative procedure’, as it is known in the EU. This cannot happen in EU circles.

What does BREXIT mean?

To win a YES, WE STAY vote, the British government must sell a narrative of successfully negotiated change with resulting benefits to the UK. That is going to be difficult. In the event of a NO, WE GO vote, what are the implications?

First, unravelling Britain’s relations with Europe will take time. Britain would first of all need to negotiate some kind of outsider access to the single market to protect its 40 per cent plus exports into the eurozone.

Secondly, key business groups, such as financial services, would find it very difficult. Outside EU banks, for example, financial services can only do business within the EU through subsidiaries who are EU members. EU student funding and rights of pensioners living in the EU would all have to be renegotiated.

Thirdly, creating deals on a bilateral base would call for reciprocity. For example, when Switzerland, a country outside the EU, unilaterally tried to curtail the free movement of labour, the European Commission six weeks later announced withdrawal of funding for Swiss Universities from the EU Education budget. No co-operation, no reciprocity.

Fourthly, the money for subsidies for farmers and rural communities, currently provided by the EU, would have to be financed by the British taxpayer. This would largely nullify gains made by withdrawing from the EU.

Fifthly, the UK would have ad hoc costs to pay for any contribution and involvement in EU foreign policy initiatives with EU partners, as countries like Norway and Turkey have to do now.

Lastly, a Brexit raises an important constitutional issue concerning the union. The Scottish National Party are firmly in favour of staying in the EU, in accordance with the wish of Scottish voters. A decision to leave the EU on the part of Britain would inevitably raise the possibility of new demands for independence by Scotland.

Conclusion: Catharsis?

The suggestion is that in the present situation a YES VOTE in a referendum would not lay pro- and anti-EU feelings to rest. A NO VOTE would cause even more problems by raising issues both in pro- and anti-EU interests within the UK, and even more with relations with countries outside the EU, due to the complexities of crafting new policies within and outside the EU, Partisan voices both for and against EU are likely to split parties in the future, and scepticism is likely to remain.

So getting a better deal, trying to cement democratic legitimacy for the EU, and resolving the relationship when it comes to utilitarian evaluation is really a mirage. A referendum may promise these but is unlikely to deliver.

Finally, in the long term, Britons may want to stay in the EU. A recent Ipsos Mori poll found that 69 per cent of 18-34 year olds were pro-staying as members of the EU as opposed to 43 per cent of over 65 year olds who were pro-leaving. So if the referendum were postponed in a few years it may well no longer be relevant.


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