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Published on March 3rd, 2014 | by Bill Burton
Image © bbc 2014


Why the United Kingdom should not hold a referendum on EU membership

The visit of Angela Merkel this week has seen the debate on Britain’s membership of the EU once again widely debated. It is the issue that will never go away from political debate. The awkward relationship between Britain and the EU is set fair for the time being. David Cameron is trying to negotiate the terms of Britain’s relationship. A move that has been met with everything ranging from bemusement to hostility on the continent.

A referendum on British membership to the EU has long been a hot topic in the media and one that many people would welcome. Bringing a referendum to the ballot box has proved a challenge, the House of Lords recently killed the Tory proposal of a binding referendum – meaning the only real chance of one taking place is if the Tories get a majority at the next election, which doesn’t seem likely at the moment. Nick Clegg is a staunch supporter of the EU  and Ed Milliband has similar views. The rise of UKIP may present a public face for anti EU sentiments. UKIP look set for a an excellent performance at the upcoming EU Parliamentary elections, but estimates currently show they could get 2-4 seats at the general election next year.

Despite the frothing at the mouth from Tory backbenchers, who seem determined to split the party over Europe once more, and how public opinion is reported in the media, public clamouring for a referendum is limited. A recent Lord Ashcroft poll of Conservative leaning voters, traditionally most likely to support leaving the EU, showed that many of them had no idea a referendum was even on the political agenda, let alone being passionate about leaving the EU. Those who were aware of a possible referendum were doubtful that it would ever see the light of day. Hardly surprising given the endless moving back of the proposed referendum date by the Tory Leadership.

The two factions that existed in the Conservative Party, the europhiles and the eurosceptics have ceased to exist in any meaningful manner. The party is now almost universally eurosceptic, Ken Clark and Michael Heseltine remain close to the government but are the only key figures who are keen on membership to the EU and both have little if any impact over the parties approach to the EU.

The protestations of Tory MP’s and UKIP largely play on prejudice and misconstrued statistics. One of my lecturers at university was a passionate supporter of the EU. She recalled how Britain gets more money back, not including subsidies, than it puts in – a far cry from the normal rhetoric of Brussels bleeding us dry. She explained how it is much easier to cast negative aspersions on the EU than to extol its benefits. The EU is a progressive institution and leans towards social justice and strongly upholds individual rights, but this doesn’t capture the same passion that immigrants coming over and taking jobs and money, even if it is a baseless accusation. A study late last year found that immigration leads to more money coming into the country than it takes out and yet immigration is often touted as a major problem facing the economy. Then there are the millions of Britons that have moved abroad and the millions more who benefit from the free unrestricted trade provided by the EU.

Leaving the EU would likely cause havoc to markets and not just in Britain. Such a bold move would be met with deliberation around the world and a reassessment of Britain’s role. As Britain loses standing in the world, retaining closer ties to Europe will be essential in keeping international relations sound. Since assuming the Presidency Barack Obama has repeatedly flirted with Germany and France, acknowledging that the so called ‘special relationship’ is not really special any more. As emerging markets in China, India and Brazil continue to grow Britain will be in a stronger position as part of core member of the EU.

The idea of having a referendum is not inherently bad or harmful. Direct democracy should be welcomed in Britain, where pluralism is severely limited by the political system. Increasing use of ballot initiatives and referendums will engage voters and increase interest in the political system. The recent culling of a bill allowing recall of MP’s is a great shame. In the US, democracy has many outlets. The federal system allows individual states to make key policy decisions, voters have a tangible way of impacting change. Ballot initiatives have flourished in recent years leading to states allowing gay marriage and liberalising marijuana laws.

Direct democracy has clear benefits, but membership of the EU is a far too complex issue to be decided by voters, it is a far too complex and important issue to be left to the public. Membership is not a matter of personal opinion, it is an extremely complex relationship that affects Britain’s economy, sovereignty, citizen’s liberty and trade agreements. How is the average voter meant to analyse such a wide array of issues and form a coherent and balanced answer, even if they tried to view the issue in a balanced way? Of all the issues facing Britain, the EU is not that important at the moment. The consequences of leaving are unknown and just emerging from the worst recession in a generation is not the time to take such risks.


Please note that all blog posts do not represent the views of Catch21 but only of the individual writers. We also aim to be factually accurate and balanced across all content taken as a whole.

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About the Author

Graduated from the University of Leeds with a degree in Politics. Topics of interest include income inequality, drug law reform, domestic politics and US politics. @bilburt

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