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Julian Priestley

Julian Priestley

Sir Julian Priestley was Secretary General of the European Parliament from 1997 to 2007.He was the ...
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Medias

Julian Priestley in the Guardian "Why Labour must rule out an EU referendum now"

on September 18, 2013, 11:33
Article - Julian Priestley
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Julian Priestley, member of our Board of Directors, signs in the Guardian, on 18 September 2013, an article on the necessity of a referendum "Why Labour must rule out an EU referendum now".

Why Labour must rule out an EU referendum now

Committing to an in/out referendum would de disastrous for Labour's election prospects – and the country's economic ones.


Ukip supporters holdind a pro-referendum demonstration outside parliament. 'If opportunism by a truly Eurosceptic party is not rewarded by electors, imagine the punishment that would be meted out to a genuinely pro-European party that lost its nerve on the EU.' Photograph: Carl Court/AFP/Getty Images

Once, with his customary elevation of tone, Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, called the idea of Labour ruling out an in/out referendum on the EU "stupid". So let me be stupid just for a moment: Ed Miliband should rule out a referendum now.

Earlier this year Miliband and his colleagues were absolutely right to criticise the prime minister for his irresponsibility in calling a referendum five years hence in circumstances unknown and after an at best uncertain negotiation for a new settlement with the EU. They pointed out the potentially disastrous consequences for market confidence and inward investment decisions. It would also be a distraction for the whole EU at a time when it should be concentrating on getting Europe back to work.

The British people seem not to have fallen for David Cameron's cynical manoeuvre to shore up his position. If opportunism by a truly Eurosceptic party is not rewarded by electors, imagine the punishment that would be meted out to a genuinely pro-European party that lost its nerve on the EU after, perhaps, a surge in the polls for Ukip at the next European elections; or in the feverish pre-election atmosphere; or, say, at a party conference in some cack-handed attempt to regain the initiative. A dose of opportunism may sometimes be necessary in politics; but make it too blatant, and it quite simply backfires.

Suppose we commit to holding an in/out referendum after the next election. Will the next Labour government have such a rosy inheritance as to afford a luxury that would not just be a distraction, but would derail our attempts to build business confidence and attract investment and jobs to the UK?

Take just one scenario. Miliband wins in 2015, having made a pledge to hold a referendum, which he keeps. The referendum is held in 2016, by which time the honeymoon period is well and truly over, and the Tories have installed an ultra anti-European leader, raring to campaign to pull us out and to wreck the rest of the Labour term in government. For it would indeed be wrecked: economic meltdown and capital flight overwhelming the daily life of government and hastening its demise. Sir John Major may think a referendum might be a "cleansing exercise"; it is more likely to be a millstone around the neck of a new Labour government.

Would a referendum at least bring closure? The historical precedent is not encouraging. A large majority for staying in the Europe in the 1975 referendum was merely the prelude to Labour splits on the issue for the next decade. It was followed by the slow-motion schism in the Tory party.

And if instead of a clear result it were to be "a close-run thing" (say 52% for staying in): can anyone imagine for a moment the anti-European obsessives in the media, in Ukip and in the Tory party simply rolling over and accepting "the people's verdict"? The Labour approach – working with socialist and progressive allies in other member states, attacking the austerity orthodoxy and committing the EU to a growth agenda and strong social policies – would be undermined if we were planning at the same time, for our own short-termist mediocre reasons, a referendum that could foreshadow our exit.

So the only possible argument left for those in Labour who say we should opt for an in/out referendum is the supposed democratic one. "The people" want their say and that trumps all considerations. But on Europe the people's clamour is muffled: Europe remains low down the list of public concerns. Over the years, if asked, people answered that they would have liked referendums on many issues - hanging or flogging, for example, or compulsory repatriation of immigrants. But the same people also in general accept the British way of deciding things - that MPs are elected to exercise their judgment; and providing parties are clear before elections, the democratic principle is safeguarded.

Supporting the idea that our destiny is bound up with being a central player in Europe is never going to be a great vote-winner. But Labour would gain respect for being clear; for the contrast with the irresponsibility of the Tories; for highlighting the anti-welfare-state agenda of which this is part; and perhaps for showing a bit of statesmanship in the national interest. We would also find support among business people. And after all, ultranationalists and Europhobes will not be voting Labour in any case.

Our chance of winning the election will be determined by the seriousness of our economic programme, on which the shadow chancellor is doubtless devoting his not inconsiderable talents. A referendum commitment would undermine its credibility. Putting a clear and irrevocable stop now to months of media speculation on whether Labour will triangulate our European future would help to focus our attack on the miserable coalition record and our alternative.

And speaking of democracy, were Miliband and the shadow cabinet to decide to go for a referendum, notwithstanding their own previous crystal-clear condemnation of the Tories' proposal, they would be reversing a central feature of party policy. It is to be hoped that this could only be contemplated after thorough debate within the party at all levels, followed by a democratic decision of party members – not a diktat from on high.

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