Analysis & Opinions -

We Need a Debate on Europe

| June 4, 2009

Political parties would benefit from a referendum on EU membership — and so would Britain.

The disinterest in this week's European election is a sure sign that for many voters, it misses the point: whether we should be in the EU at all.

Increasingly, Britain's EU membership is the woolly mammoth in the room. It is an issue which politicians all avoid discussing. Most British people — 58 per cent — say they have only a woolly understanding of how it works, but they still have to pay for its mammoth bureaucracy.

There is a vacuum where the national debate should be. One consequence of the main parties' silence on this issue is that without a healthy flow of facts and evidence, debate on this vital issue has slowed to a trickle and become polluted with credulousness and myths. Europhiles barely acknowledge such extraordinary wastefulness as the European parliament moving from Brussels to work in Strasbourg for one week every single month. Meanwhile, UKIP disingenuously puts about the unattributed claim that 75 per cent of our legislation comes from the EU, when academic studies show that the figure was about 15 per cent in the early nineties and has been closer to 9 per cent since.

These myths do not, as some claim, mean that we as a country cannot have a proper debate about Europe. On the contrary, they mean that a proper debate is needed, so that we can assess the cases for and against membership with facts and evidence. The country should not ignore the issue any longer. The case for a referendum in the next few years is overwhelming.

Firstly, more of us want to leave than ever before. More than half want the UK to leave the EU but keep trading links, according to a recent BBC survey. More authoritative polling from the Economist still shows that over the last fourteen years, the number of us wanting to loosen the UK's ties to the EU has also risen to over 50 per cent. In the BBC's survey, a full 84 per cent agreed that Britain should vote before transferring any more power to the EU.

Secondly, ever more of us see the big parties' insistence on denying people a referendum as an arrogant denial of an important shift in public opinion. This contributed to the success of UKIP in 2004, and to the desertion of the big parties in this election in favour of protest votes for smaller parties.

Thirdly, nobody born after 1957 has ever been able to vote on it. Even those who voted to stay in in 1975 did not realise just how many regulations we would subsequently have to follow, and how much they would cost British business.

Nor is it hard to see the case which each party could make to its members on the benefits of a referendum. Labour can argue that focus on this issue would expose Tory splits and policy obfuscation on Europe, and their losing eurosceptic ground to UKIP. The Conservatives can argue that the swing to euroscepticism could work to their benefit as Labour are associated with the ever less popular spectre of the EU in the public mind. UKIP will just be happy to have their referendum.

Europhile opponents of a referendum often argue that a eurosceptic press would misrepresent the europhile case. But if they believe that the facts and argument are on their side, this, surely, is an argument for more engagement, not less.

But perhaps most of all, a referendum would ensure that as a country we have a proper debate on this issue. There are good and bad arguments on both sides. The current lacklustre debate does the national interest a disservice by allowing myths and credulousness to dominate the argument. A referendum would expose them to proper scrutiny, sort the weak arguments from the strong, clear the air, and enable the country to move forward with a renewed sense of purpose.

Azeem Ibrahim is a research scholar at the International Security Program, Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University; world fellow at Yale University and a member of the Deans International Council, Harris School of Public Policy, University of Chicago.

For more information on this publication: Please contact the Belfer Communications Office
For Academic Citation: Ibrahim, Azeem.“We Need a Debate on Europe.”, June 4, 2009.