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Home Opinion Britain awaits an inevitable referendum
Britain • EU • Referendum

Britain awaits an inevitable referendum

Peter Mandelson - 19 November 2012

Britain is limbering up for another battle over Europe and those who take a realistic view of its future need to prepare, whichever party they support

Not so long ago, I was asked by a European head of government whether I thought David Cameron would be willing to compromise on increasing the size of the EU budget if, in return, his European partners helped Britain in future treaty negotiations on EU governance. I did not think Mr. Cameron would consider the two topics linked, either in substance or time. On matters to do with Europe, he tends to live day by day rather than year to year and on the budget his hands are tied.

The prime minister’s unenviable position is starting to attract some sympathy amongst his continental counterparts but this is not stopping most of them, including Germany, writing off Britain’s future in Europe – much to their regret. Having been angered over last December’s ‘veto’ by Mr. Cameron, they concluded that, under Conservative leadership, Britain was consciously heading for the exit door, or at least something less than full membership. They may not think that Mr. Cameron has shown much, if any, leadership in standing up to his party. But the Commons' vote favouring a cut in the EU budget demonstrated to them his lack of freedom of maneouvre. They were taken aback by hardline Tory MPs’ bullying and surprised by Labour’s behaviour in supporting them.

Whether this particular tactical alliance will last is questionable. As opposition politicians, Labour’s leaders are inevitably pre-occupied by domestic politics. They want to turn David Cameron into John Major – ‘weak at home, weak abroad’.  But Ed Miliband also knows that he cannot ignore the question of Europe’s future and that he must differentiate Labour’s position from that of the Conservatives.

The new generation of Labour leaders are not anti-Europe but nor are they anchored as firmly in the pro-EU attitudes of their predecessors. Partly it is an age thing. Memories of the world war and then the cold war drove sentiment in favour of European unity but these memories have faded.  Many are only dimly aware of the former Labour leader, Neil Kinnock’s Herculean efforts to turn round party opinion on Europe in the 1980s, one of the essential steps in Labour’s return to electoral credibility. Kinnock’s argument, still right today, was that as a progressive party, Labour has to recognise the importance of Europe acting together to realise economic, social and environmental goals.  Now, Labour leaders are smelling the coffee of growing Eurosceptic public opinion and don’t want to get too far on the wrong side of it.

On the other hand, there are very few in Labour’s ranks who share the pre-dominant Conservative view that Britain, like Norway, should aspire to a free trade relationship with the EU and nothing more. Or the delusion of the hardliners that, by not being in the EU, Britain could become master of his own fate. That if only we could take ourselves out of Europe’s mainstream, a wonderful new vista would open up of an off-shore Britain, providing a financial and service hub to the rest of Europe, trading freely with the rest of the world, a kind of modern day Hong Kong to Europe’s China. But Britain is not Hong Kong (and Europe is not China). Britain cannot make its living by becoming an isolated, old curiosity shop tourist destination, adrift from its own continent and its own European domestic market.

It is some time since I had a conversation with David Cameron about Europe but when he came to visit me in Brussels he said two things that struck me at the time. That Europe should stop peering into its constitutional navel and get on with doing what it is best at, building continental responses to global problems. And that put two Conservatives into the same room and it would not take them long to fall out over Europe. Unfortunately for him, a very large number of his backbenchers are more determined than ever to raise the stakes over Europe and, like it or not, the Eurozone crisis has put governance issues firmly back on to the agenda. Burying Europe is no longer an option for him, as it is not for Ed Miliband. Together with Nick Clegg, they are going to have to take positions on successive frameworks, timelines and blueprints of EU reform, stretching into the next parliament, that attempt to formulate a new way of running the EU that works equally well for those member states in the Eurozone and those outside it. All party leaders are going to have to explain their policies. The time for fence-sitting is over.

The difference, I would have thought, between the Conservatives on the one hand, and Labour and the Liberal Democrats on the other, is that while the former will be seeking wholesale re-negotiation of Britain’s place in Europe by means of a ‘re-patriation of powers’, the latter will seek reform and an accommodation of Britain’s interests firmly in the single market whilst we remain outside the Eurozone. This is the nub of the issue for those who think constructively about Europe: without closing the door on using the single currency assuming it endures, Britain, meanwhile, should help stabilize the Eurozone through its further integration and ensure Britain’s financial service interests are fully safeguarded alongside it.

This need not mean Britain is declining in influence in Europe.  We will not be part of the Eurozone core for the foreseeable future but, in itself, that does not mean taking up a lonely, aloof position on the EU’s periphery.  There are plenty of areas where Britain can take a leading role in addition to matters concerning the single market, for example on European competitiveness, energy, climate change, defence and foreign policy matters. But a key political task faces us: to persuade our partners that, amongst the ten present members of the EU not in the Eurozone, Britain is prepared to play a constructive role in finding policy and governance solutions to the Eurozone’s problems - and that, in return, we expect full acknowledgement of our role in the EU’s decision-making as a whole.

Actual new treaty negotiations are unlikely to get underway until European parliamentary elections and appointment of the new Commission have taken place by 2015. But what continues to spook British debate – and thoroughly alienate our EU partners - is the anti-Europeans’ incessant demand, echoed by the Eurosceptic press, for an in/out referendum on Britain’s EU membership, regardless of the European timetable and before any new EU plan has emerged. This can and should be resisted. The only justification for a referendum, surely, is to allow the British people to determine their position after new arrangements have been proposed.  My view is that, then, some test of public opinion will become inevitable and that pro-Europeans need to abandon their complacency about this, acknowledge that, to date, their case has largely gone by default and that it needs to be re-articulated with fresh vigour. Britain is limbering up for another domestic battle over Europe and those who take a realistic view of Britain’s future in Europe need to start preparing now, whatever political party they may support.

Peter Mandelson is president of Policy Network and former UK first secretary of state, business secretary and EU Trade commissioner


An abridged version of this article was published in The Financial Times

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on The politics of European integration.

Tags: Peter Mandelson , Opinion , Britain , UK , European Union , EU , Referendum , David Cameron , Conservative Party , Conservatives , Tory , Tories , Nick Clegg , Liberal Democrats , Lib Dems , Ed Miliband , Labour , Labour Party , John Major , Europe , Budget , Germany , Euroscepticism , Norway , China , Hong Kong , Neil Kinnock , Euro , Eurozone , Defence Policy , Foreign Policy , European Parliament , European Commission ,

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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