Tell the British we can’t choose on the EU and we’ll want a vote all the more

Suggestions by foreign figures (however friendly) that we had better listen to them if we know what is good for us only bolster the Eurosceptic argument

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The Independent Online

A senior US official, the leader of a delegation from the Bundestag, and a spokesman for the European Union president have united in saying it would be rash to allow the British people a say on their nation’s future within the European Union. This has – oddly – been interpreted as a weighty check to the ambitions of Eurosceptics.

On the contrary, since the Eurosceptic view is that closer integration of Britain and the eurozone will lead to an insupportable transfer of control over British laws towards politicians not elected by us, suggestions by foreign figures (however friendly) that we had better listen to them if we know what is good for us hardly seem well-judged; or at least not if their intention was to weaken the momentum of popular demand for a referendum on the matter.

The remarks by Philip Gordon, the US assistant secretary responsible for European Affairs, were especially clumsy. He did not – perhaps because that would be too much of an interference – bother to make an argument as to why it was in Britain’s interests to be more closely integrated within the EU project. No, all Mr Gordon said was that it was in America’s interest for Britain to have a central role within the EU establishment, because “Britain has been such a special partner of the United States, that shares our values, shares our interests... its voice within the European Union is essential and critical to the United States”. Or in other words, we in the State department want you to know not so much how valuable it might be for you Brits to be in Brussels, but how useful it is for us to have you guys there. Gee, thanks.

Actually, it has ever since the height of the Cold War been State Department policy to see the creation of what amounts to a federal European state. Then it was most to do with the perceived necessity to build up a united bulwark against the Soviet Union. Yet Americans also seem to have a problem with the very idea of European nation states, partly because they lost so many lives in wars fought between nations on this continent, but also because since it is not a nation state itself, it struggles to understand those who want to remain in one.

The US, by contrast, is a federation of states linked by an idea, otherwise known as the American Constitution. This is what the EU establishment wanted to set up with the European Constitution, to accompany the brave new single currency. Unfortunately for them, referendums in France and Holland – hardly known as bastions of popular Euroscepticism – rejected the idea; not for the first time, the public had proven a great inconvenience.

Similarly, although those ridiculing the idea of Britain having a similar status to Norway and Switzerland insist it would leave the governments of this country with no influence and a weaker economy, it is interesting that the hardly ill-educated citizens of those two nations have by a majority disbelieved exactly this argument, when consulted in referendums. Norway rejected full membership of the EU in a plebiscite in 1994 and it currently has no plans to file another application. Most opinion polls still show roughly 60 per cent opposed to full membership. It is a similar story in Switzerland, even though geographically and linguistically that country could hardly be more part of Europe. Yet in a referendum in 2001 – before the debacle of the euro—the Swiss people rejected (with a vote of almost 77 per cent) the EU membership campaign known as “Yes to Europe!”. 

No wonder such a large part of the British political establishment who previously argued that we would suffer from massive loss of investment if we failed to join the euro (such as Lord Mandelson, Lord Heseltine and anyone associated with the Confederation of British Industry) are now getting their knickers in a twist about the prospect of a straight “in or out” plebiscite in this country.

Perhaps this will not happen and their knickers can return to their usual unruffled state. David Cameron does not want the question to be put to the British people in such a stark form. He has made it clear that he does not countenance the idea of Britain’s leaving the EU; and the first rule of referendums is that you hold them only if you want the answer “Yes”. So he will try to put a more nuanced question to which that is the answer he is likely to get.

The primordial democratic question last asked in 1975 will have to be put again.

It is true that before the last general election the Liberal Democrats had as party policy the idea of holding an “in or out referendum”, but this was a tactical stunt rather than based on a genuine desire for such a plebiscite and Mr Clegg would now rather forget he ever suggested it. Finally, there is the point that the biggest single party in parliament after the general election in 2015 may very well be Labour, and at the weekend its leader Ed Miliband stated with absolute clarity his opposition to the idea of a referendum on the matter.

Naturally, Mr Miliband understands that the Tory leader is in rather the same position that Harold Wilson was back in 1975, when the Labour government held a referendum on British membership of what was then the European Economic Community. The Labour Party was deeply split on the issue and the offer of a plebiscite (though itself a good thing) was the only way of keeping his party manageable.

Also like Wilson, Cameron wants to have some success in renegotiating our terms of membership; but unlike that Labour Prime Minister, he seems to think he could achieve such claw-backs of power from Brussels that he could have a plebiscite on that alone, without offering the option of complete exit. I would be most surprised if he makes such gains across the negotiating table. Cameron seems to have poor personal working relationships with his fellow national leaders within the EU (not least Angela Merkel): he is no world-class schmoozer like John Major, who successfully wooed Helmut Kohl and others into agreeing various British opt-outs.

Faced with a complete failure in regaining any so-called “ competencies” from the immense regulatory morass of the European Union, however, the primordial democratic question last put in 1975 will probably need to be asked again – as even the impeccably Europhile Financial Times conceded last week when advocating such a vote: “Today’s EU is vastly different from the one Britain joined in 1973, or indeed the one Britons voted to stay in when they were last given a chance to express their views.”

So, with apologies for any discomfort in Washington, Berlin and Brussels, it will then be time for that most unpredictable of events: the exercise of democracy.