The EU referendum: a historic choice

David Spratt - Regular Columnist

David Cameron visits Riga, Latvia | Image: UK in Latvia

Much is being made of Cameron’s renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s EU membership in the press, but this represents nothing new for those old enough to have already voted on Britain’s membership of the European community.

David Cameron faces a similar renegotiation process as Harold Wilson over 40 years apart

Having been refused entry twice in 1963 and 1967 by then French President Charles de Gaulle, Edward Heath in 1973 brought the UK into the European Economic Community (EEC) or Common Market which would then become what we know now as the European Union (EU). A year later Labour’s 1974 manifesto promised a renegotiation of the terms of the UK’s membership and a subsequent referendum, just as the Conservative manifesto of 2015 promised. There are some striking similarities in the main areas of renegotiation during both periods. Having taken office in 1974 Harold Wilson would call an election a year later to seek a majority in the Commons which he narrowly gained, he then set about his process of renegotiation. Three of Wilson’s focus areas were as follows: the UK contribution to EEC budget, the goal of Monetary Union and Parliamentary sovereignty. Wilson would eventually settle on a “New Deal in Europe. A Deal that will help us, help the Commonwealth, and help our partners in Europe” (taken from an official government pamphlet encouraging the in vote in 1975), in contrast to the pamphlet the “in vote” all but destroyed the UK’s individual relationship with the Commonwealth as the EU imposes that the UK cannot independently enter into negotiations with Commonwealth states, instead the EU negotiates collectively. Wilson’s renegotiation has since been largely considered mutton dressed as lamb, David Cameron will have a task on his hands to convince the voting public and perhaps more importantly the media that his deal has more flavour. Recently the Prime Minister and Donald Tusk, President of the European Council sat down to a fillet of beef to do just that.

Harold Wilson with German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard | Image: German Federal Archive
Harold Wilson with German Chancellor Ludwig Erhard | Image: German Federal Archive

Cameron’s aims are four fold, firstly immigration, in particular preventing EU residents immigrating to Britain and claiming benefits for their first four years. Secondly, giving the UK more sovereignty against EU directives, specifically a “red card” system whereby member states can veto directives.

Thirdly, the Prime Minister seeks an agreement that the UK can opt-out of the political implications of the EU’s ambition for “ever closer union.” Lastly he wants to ensure that the UK is not disadvantaged by continuing to use its sterling currency and that the UK will not have to contribute to future bailouts.

But what has Cameron’s drawn out negotiations actually achieved?

On sovereignty, Cameron sought to avoid “ever closer union”, Tusk conceded in his 16-page letter, the press release of which can be found here:  that “ever closer union . . . [does] not compel all member states to aim for a common destination” this is an important agreement that Cameron has won, if only symbolic for now it sets out clearly that “the United Kingdom . . . is not committed to further political integration into the European Union.” The Prime Minister also received agreement on a “red card” system, although not as powerful as many euro-sceptics would like, the new power grants if 55 per cent of national parliaments agree they can veto EU proposals. This perhaps is more of a symbolic victory for Cameron as finding 55 per cent cooperation within the EU will be difficult and will likely be rarely used or used unsuccessfully. Tusk did not grant all of Cameron’s wishes on sovereignty as in the letter there was no explicit recognition that the union was host to multiple currencies and that non-euro currencies would not be disadvantaged; a concession which Cameron has fought for explicit recognition of.

On welfare and benefits Cameron won his sought after “emergency brake” whereby benefits to migrant works can be cut for four years where there is a strain on the domestic welfare system. The only difference from Cameron’s wish is that welfare benefit will increase steadily over the four years. This is largely still a victory for Cameron and the EU has agreed that after the referendum should the UK stay in they could trigger the brake immediately. There are a number of questions remaining over this ambiguous brake system, who decides what constitutes “excessive strain”? Will we see an influx of migrants after the four years in which the break is in place, thus on magnifying the problem in to a short space of time? Are the EU giving the UK permission to trigger the brake now in order to win favour with the British public and after the initial four years refuse to grant permission to activate the break again? There is an argument whereby even with the break on it is still worthwhile for a number of EU citizens to make their way to the UK and get their small amount of welfare and see it increase as they stay longer. Arguably this is not enough of a disincentive. This particular agreement is arguably the lynchpin on which the referendum turns and the voting public will rightly seek some clarification on the “emergency brake” system. Remaining on the point of welfare Cameron has failed to get his demand to ban migrant workers from sending benefit money back to their home nations. Cameron will have a task convincing much of Eastern Europe to accept the draft as the emergency brake system effectively states that the UK can discriminate against EU migrants in terms of welfare when the emergency brake is active, which arguably undermines the very idea of union.

David Cameron sits down with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council (EU) | Image: Crown Copyright
David Cameron sits down with Donald Tusk, President of the European Council (EU) | Image: Crown Copyright

Cameron has won a number of battles in his deal with Tusk, but the waters are muddied and the voting public will seek clarification on the practicality of a number of the agreed action points before polling day and rightly so as at present a number of EU leaders have stated that they find the deal “confusing”. Much will be made in the press of the significance of Cameron’s deal and whether it provides the electorate a reason to stay within the EU, but it must be noted that we are not polling on the strength of Cameron’s deal, which may well fade to insignificance; rather we are polling on our membership of the EU. We will vote on whether we want to stay in a single market giving the UK unlimited access to a market of over 500 million inhabitants. This leads many in the City to campaign for an in vote else potentially suffering loss of jobs and almost certainly investment, as for non-EU companies London provides access to the single market. A number of social benefits also come with our membership of the EU e.g. opportunities to study, work and travel abroad. Moreover the EU has been a leader on a number of environmental issues and set a number of climate change targets, conversations the UK will want to be part of. The below infographic taken from The Economist seeks to weigh up the debate.

Both campaigns will be driven by fear, the fear that the UK will become overpopulated and it’s services over-strained if we remain inside the EU and on the other hand the fear that the UK will not return to the strength of its imperial past but rather it will be viewed as an isolated island in an increasingly globalised world, giving the UK less say on international matters. Many will argue that we compromise our security should we leave the EU, however it must be remembered that the UK will still remain a military power as part of NATO. Moreover the in campaign will play on the fear of the unknown; there are many unanswered questions in this debate: will the UK suffer economically if it leaves the EU? Some may argue the EU will impose additional taxes upon the UK, others argue that the EU cannot afford to stop trading with the UK and that leaving will not impact our trade with the EU, but only give the UK more trade options. This all equates to speculation at the present time. It is imperative that this information both about Cameron’s deal and the consequences of the no vote get some degree of clarification before polling day. As an advocate of direct democracy I believe whole-heartedly in referendums, but it is essential that the voting public have access to clear information on both sides of the argument before making an informed choice. If leaders of the EU find Cameron’s deal confusing and campaigns are centred around the fear of the unknown then this referendum will be decided by emotion which is not the basis on which such a historic decision should be made, after all the UK nearly lost Scotland to a referendum driven by emotion.

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