In 1975 I campaigned for a ‘yes’ in the referendum on what was then the Common Market. In the past decades my attitude to the EU has vacillated and this has especially been the case since 2000. It is true that I campaigned for a free market area and I still have faith in that proposition and I was prepared to relegate my concerns about the anti-democratic character of the EU to one side. The economic crisis since 2008 and the almost complete failure of the EU elite to resolve the euro crisis, other than throwing money at countries with sovereign debt problems in return to austerity measures, leads me to question whether membership of the EU is still in Britain’s national interest. The notion of strength in unity that underpinned the whole idea of the EU is cracking and all the centre can suggest is that what is needed is greater European integration.
One reason why many in Britain are sceptical about the direction in which the EU seems hell-bent on going is that we have, for all its defects, an established democratic system in which the people play a significant role and whose voice cannot be indefinitely ignored. Demands for a referendum which, irrespective of what the question is, will be about whether Britain should be in or out of the EU, have grown in urgency and support since the mid-1990s, a situation aided by the failure of successive governments, despite their promises, to accede to calls for a vote. This reflects the democratic deficit long identified as at the centre of the EU. Take the debate over the new EU constitution in the 2000s: once the EU elite recognised that it would lose referendums on a constitution, it changed the rules and pushed ahead with much of the constitution in the Treaty of Lisbon that did not need referendums for national ratification. Or, as in Ireland, when a referendum defeats an EU development, you renegotiate and vote on it again (and presumably again) until you give the answer the EU wants. Those committed to the European project have never trusted ‘the people’ to give the answer they wanted and so have either circumvented or ignored them. While this may be acceptable to many in Europe (though even here support seems to be waning ), it goes against everything that most people in Britain regard as democratic. It’s not just that we’re being awkward (though there is an element of ‘Little England’ in people’s thinking) but that our history and constitutional development has for the past two hundred years at least been based on the idea that Britain is involved in Europe but that we are not actually part of Europe, a consequence of our (not just geographical) insularity.
Within the next five years or perhaps sooner, there will be a referendum in Britain over the EU and it will be an in/out referendum (whether that is the question or not). The question is whether Britain is better inside the EU or whether we would be better served by negotiating a free trade agreement with EU members and remain outside. Whatever the political case for greater European integration, and there is a case to be answered, what appears to matter for many people in Britain is whether our economy will be adversely affected by not being in the EU. It was why most people supported the yes campaign in 1975 and it is still the determining factor in many people’s reasoning. I’m not convinced that even if the EU became a more democratic and accountable institution that it would gain sufficient support in Britain. Despite the continued commitment of many within our economic and political elites to membership of the EU, if not the European project, when there is a referendum I do not see those elites being able to persuade most people of the case for remaining in Europe. It could well be the wrong decision but at least the principle of British democracy will have been expressed.