Yes to an EU referendum
Green Party MP Caroline Lucas today backed a referendum of Britain’s membership of the EU. This was apparently such a surprise to the world at large that her name was instantly trending on Twitter.
But that someone on the left supports a referendum should come as no shock. Because this country’s public debate about the EU has never reflected the issues that truly matter. Britain’s discussion about the way that our continental relations are constituted has always been seen as a cultural split. Either you are a real ale drinking chips and gravy swilling UK nationalist, disgusted by the very idea of sharing decisions with the Frogs and the Krauts, or you are a multicultural olive loving, wine drinking liberal lefty, in which case you think every descision about everything should be made in Brussels by Eurocrats who speak jargon in 15 languages. If you are the former, you always want a referendum, so you can vote to leave. If you are the latter, you always oppose a referendum, because you hate the people and don’t trust them to polish your shoes. Or so the media narrative goes. As with American politics, we’ve ended up chasing our tail into the oblivion of culture wars.
But what we have seen over the last year or so is that this cultural debate was always periferal. Because the EU as it is was always primarily an economic project. And rather than debating the economics – rather than discussing whether it makes sense for Greece and Germany to have the same interest rates, which regulations we should share, and which should be set at home, we argued about whether or not we should still hold a grudge against the French for foul play in the Napoleonic wars.
And when we debate these economic issues, as with everything in a democracy, we should not fear the people.
Speaking ahead of the Commons vote today, Caroline Lucas said:
“I support a referendum on our membership of the EU because I am pro-democracy, not because I’m anti-EU – and because I want to see a radical reform of the way Europe operates.
“The EU has the potential to spread peace and make our economies more sustainable, and to promote democracy and human rights, at home and throughout the world.
“But it must urgently change direction, away from an obsessive focus on competition and free trade and towards placing genuine co-operation and environmental sustainability at its heart.
“Thanks to the bureaucratic and remote way which the EU works, many people today are no longer sure what is it for. So the challenge now is to make those institutions more democratic and accountable – and to develop a more compelling vision of the EU’s role and purpose.
“A referendum would allow the space for that debate about the future of the Union to occur, and to ensure that the goals of the European project really are in the best interests of EU citizens.”
And that, surely, is the point. We should ask ourselves what the EU is for. And we should force it to give the answer that it is for its people, that it exists because perhaps some decisions are better made at a continent wide level, and that we do perhaps need practical channels through which to mediate our mutual solidarity.
And if the union can’t give that answer – perhaps more to the point, if it can’t articulate how it is that it makes the lives of the majority of its members better, then it needs seriously to examine itself.
Caroline Lucas’ amendment says this: “seek to build support for radical reform of the EU, increasing its transparency and accountability, refocusing its objectives on co-operation and environmental sustainability rather than competition and free trade, and enabling member states to exercise greater control over their own economies.”
And who could disagree with that?
So, yes, we should debate what the EU is for, and who it is for. And if the only way to force that discussion is to vote on our membership of what is increasingly becoming a capitalist’s club, then so be it. Perhaps the timing isn’t ideal, but sometimes, you don’t get to pick your turf.
Plus, this would be a pan European thing from the outset.
Forgive my ignorance, and no doubt this has been tried already, but is there an alternative? If one wants to renegotiate the way the whole of the EU works then it seems that backing a referendum by one country in the EU which will presumably only have ‘yes’ ‘no’ options on it is a bit daft. Surely the thing to do would be to get progressive parties across Europe to draft their own alternative EU constitution and campaign on that. That way scepticism about how the EU works could be turned into something positive rather than something negative, there would be no risk of getting confused with troglodyte nationalists and we would be doing something proactive rather than reactive. Once the idea of a progressive alternative constitution got started, you might then find all sorts of more mainstream parties jumping on the bandwagon, and next time a possibility for a referendum comes around you could have a meaningful campaign to have that option on the ballot.
I hope Caroline Lucas’ stance was merely down to political cynicism rather than outright ignorance of Europe’s precarious situation.
Clearly the EU needs urgent and inclusive re-engagement over its future.
But timing matters in politics and yesterday was the worst possible time to call for a new relationship let alone a referendum.
The EU exists on co-operation, but also on solidarity. Today’s talks are critical to ensuring a best-case scenario for its weakest members. Even with success they face cuts and unemployment which make the UK’s economic problems look like a picnic.
Had the motion passed, it would have further weakened an already difficult situation and been perceived as a betrayal of our neighbours at their time of need.
Fortunately, the majority of our MPs saved the serious EU discussions for a better moment.
This only increased the media and point-scoring gains to the minority.
I just hope this won’t encourage among green supporters the ‘we don’t give a damn’ attitude of the people she voted alongisde.
I agree with your basic point that those Tories demanding a referendum will have been driven by wanting to shore up their privilege and power.
However, Caroline clearly isn’t seeking “some result that gives the UK special influence and privilege”.
She’s seeking a debate on how to stop “special influence and privilege”.
It would be a sad day if the Greens do or don’t do things out of fear that they will be seen to be on one side of the bigoted narrow-minded alternatives we are offered rather than the other.
We have to set out a saner path, and there is no perfect time to wait for, a time when it will be ok to disrupt the cosy consensus – in the vote last night this no-alternative-at-all was expressed as being for the elitism of the British state or the elitism of the corporate EU state. Putting a completely different option on the table was crucial, and Caroline did that.
Couldn’t disagree more. I think that Ms Lucas, who is my MP and whom I generally trust to do sensible things, has got this badly wrong.
Let’s leave aside the halo effects of marching through the lobby with the purest of hardline free-marketers, who believe, on no evidence, that the EU “strangles business”
Let’s ignore the political message of siding with a campaign started by the Daily bloody Express of all papers.
Let’s forget the anti-immigration and brick-up-the-Channel-Tunnel motivation of some of her fellow yes-voters.
Let’s just concentrate on “would a referendum achieve the goals she wants to achieve?” No, of course it wouldn’t. She’s fallen into the “Gunboat up the Seine” position, thinking that a “renegotiation” of the EU or Britain’s membership can start at a time of Britain’s choosing, and end up with some result that gives the UK special influence and privilege. No, that’s not how negotiation works – you need willing partners and a chance that you might get a decent outcome.
Change the EU and change the world, fine goals. You can’t do it by shouting from the sidelines. You can’t do it by assuming that Johnny Euro should just listen to what his betters in the UK think, and that’s the end of it. You definitely can’t do it in an environment of rampant media xenophobia that is driving towards the creation of an even-more-free-market even-more-isolated UK stuck on the edge of Europe and relegated to 3rd-rank power status.
Ms Lucas says she wants better democratic debate. Yup, me too. I have no idea how she thinks that this is achieved by a right-wing media-driven referendum campaign on an issue that at most 3% of Brits say is important.