There is no question to answer: Calls for a popular vote ignore the real issues of European unity, says Nicholas Bethell

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The Independent Online
WHEN Harold Wilson called a referendum on Britain's continued membership of the European Economic Community in 1974, it seemed a shameful idea. Only two years earlier Edward Heath's government had negotiated our terms for entry. Now, having signed and entered, we were breaking the agreement by seeking to reopen negotiations. The other eight member states saw it, quite simply, as an example of British perfidy.

Still, Mr Wilson had his priorities and, once the referendum was inevitable, Conservatives like myself campaigned as best we could on his side. So did Margaret Thatcher, who took over as party leader three months before referendum day.

The 1975 referendum had one great beauty. The question was simple: 'In or out?' Most Conservatives wanted to stay in, and so we campaigned in this sense, even though we knew that we were strengthening Mr Wilson's position and solving his problems of party disunity. We worked hard for our adversary and we propped him up, in what we saw as the national interest.

I wonder whether this is what Norman Lamont and the other Eurosceptics now have in mind? Maybe they recall how the referendum gave Mr Wilson his 'quick fix' in 1975. They want John Major to use the same device to get himself off the many European hooks from which he dangles. If it worked in 1975, could it not work

today?

As a candidate in the European election campaign, I see the referendum's superficial attractions. In the street and on the doorstep they have heard whispers of referendums and they think it means 'in or out'. They do not say which option they favour. They just vaguely feel that they would like to have their say on an issue that so consumes the media's interest.

In that case, the Prime Minister is on to a winner. Even Sir Teddy Taylor does not argue for withdrawal from the European Union. The 'in or out' question, voted on after a month of nationwide debate, would result in a much higher 'in' majority than the two-to- one achieved in 1975.

No doubt the House of Commons has its 'in-the-closet withdrawalists', but no one is yet ready to campaign for an 'out' openly, except perhaps Dr Alan Sked, leader of the very small Anti-Federalist Party, and his band. The 'in' would be confirmed massively, with the help of many Labour and Liberal Democrat votes. It would be the Prime Minister's triumph.

Perhaps then the device could be as helpful to Mr Major as it was to Mr Wilson? I doubt it. The Eurosceptics will not fall into that trap. They will look for a referendum not about withdrawal, which they would lose, but about excessive European integration, over which they think that the people support them. They want to stay in the 'common market', to repeal some of the agreements we have made, and then draw a line behind which Britain will live as a nation state. And there are a hundred different views, among the sceptics as well as among enthusiasts, on how far integration should be allowed to go.

William Cash and others have a 'menu' of demands. They are fond of saying that they are not against Europe or even a European Community, but that it should be a free association of sovereign states co-operating freely. They accept decisions of the Council of Ministers, provided that it acts unanimously, but they are suspicious of the EC Commission, they reject the powers of the European Court of Justice and they abhor the European Parliament. They say that they will live with a European Community, but will only accept one of its four institutions. I have tried in vain to think of a referendum question that would satisfy Conservatives who hold this view. How can the European Union be remoulded in such an image? No other member state would consider such proposals.

Their list is long. They accept the Single European Act - Mrs Thatcher took it through parliament, after all - but they reject the single currency. They want to repeal the Maastricht agreement, reduce Britain's budgetary contribution and abolish the Common Agricultural Policy. They reject majority voting by ministers, however qualified it might be, and they see little reason to accept European co-operation in foreign policy matters, let alone in

immigration.

A referendum designed for every such aspect of Euroscepticism would thus have to take into account all these different points and provide voters with the means of expressing an opinion. It could not be done. Those who demand radical change, while opposing withdrawal, will therefore have to be told that a referendum will not help to achieve what they wish.

Even if the British government were converted to Eurosceptic policies, the changes listed above would not be conceded by the other 11 members. We have been told again and again that we cannot have Europe a la carte. If we want the single market, they say, we must be ready to accept certain other measures that we like less. Otherwise they will ask us, as Francois Mitterrand did at Maastricht: 'Why don't you just opt out?'

No referendum will ease the Government's position. No referendum will satisfy the Eurosceptics. There are simply too many complicated questions. A ballot paper looking like a menu would enable voters to express their views on the different points, but the essential question would remain: 'If our community partners will not oblige us over these changes, will you then favour outright withdrawal?'. To this, the sceptics have no answer.

Again, the debate is not only about whether or not to cancel past agreements. It is also about 'progress' towards deeper European unity. Such demands will soon be upon us. There will be an inter-governmental conference about this in 1996. The Dutch and the Belgians, gung-ho for a federal Europe with a strong central authority, will argue that the 'bicycle' of European integration has to keep moving. If it stands still, it will topple over.

A single currency, they will say, is already agreed. They will want a superstate, with large-scale Brussels involvement in job-creating schemes and a consequent increase in the Community's budget. They will ask for qualified majority voting to be the norm, over foreign policy and immigration, as well as over workers' rights.

One does not have to be a Eurosceptic to see this picture not as a tottering bicycle, but as a juggernaut racing downhill at high speed, as the 11 passengers cheer and the driver, Mr Major, pumps away at a dangerously inadequate set of brakes.

The Prime Minister will need Euro- caution and a clear head, not a referendum, if this fearsome truck is to be kept on the road.

The author is MEP for Brent, Harrow and Hillingdon and will be standing for re-election next month.

(Photograph omitted)

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