Should we have an EU referendum?
At Dr Fox’s speech on the EU this morning, Nick Robinson of the BBC suggested that Fox’s admission that he thought we had nothing to fear from EU exit was a very significant moment. Up until the last few months, Conservative MPs have felt unable to talk openly about possible UK withdrawal from the union. Now for the first time, Fox spoke of the insular nature of the EU and implied it was in part responsible for our poor attempts to tap into the high growth of the emerging economies. Why should we be worried when so many other countries prospered outside?
A key argument in the speech was that functional commonality was more important for successful cooperation between nation states than geographical proximity – and that as such the UK would be well placed to trade freely and successfully with other nations with similar commitments to free trade, and established legal and property rights. Britain’s relationship had seen too much power ceded to Brussels without popular assent on other issues, he argued.
The solution according to Dr Fox was to attempt to renegotiate our position according to what we want from a new relationship – and in his view, this would mean remaining a member of the single market and customs union, but having all other powers and competencies devolved back to Westminster. It would a pure economic, and not a political union set-up.
Once the Government had established their preferred form of relationship, they would put the idea to the EU with the caveat that were an agreement reached with them, the UK public would have a final chance to ratify the new relationship via a referendum. If, however, an agreement could not be reached, or if the British public voted against the proposed renegotiation, then a pure In-Out referendum would result.
In a question and answer session afterwards, I asked Dr Fox whether his method of renegotiation prior to referenda might risk alienating potential supporters of a referendum from the opposite side of the political spectrum, who do not share his free-market vision. Essentially, I was putting to him the case made by campaign groups such as The People’s Pledge – that a referendum is right in principle on the basis of determining national sovereignty, especially given that most who voted in 1975 did so on the basis of an economic union.
Dr Fox’s answered that a pure In-Out referendum straight away was not desirable, because it would be unclear what you were offering to the British people. Our relationship with the EU following an Out vote would then be a huge unknown, but presumably an ‘In’ vote would be seen as a declaration that the status quo was accepted – something that the majority of people clearly do not desire.
Though I think a new relationship with the EU is desirable, I’m torn on whether Fox’s approach is right. On the one hand, I think that I broadly agree with his analysis of what’s wrong with our relationship, and what (from a free-market perspective) I’d like to see from any renegotiation. But on the other, I totally buy the argument that many make that only an In-Out referendum could be used to determine whether we want full national sovereignty, rather than just sovereignty over policy areas where we currently don’t like EU outcomes.
The first seems a more pragmatic step and is desirable to me (and I guess, many other conservatives), but it surely wouldn’t produce good favour with those whose main desire is full independence for us as a nation state but who have different visions of future economic policies.
I’d be interested to hear what readers of this blog feel. Is a two-part question as Dr Fox outlined right? Or is an In-Out referendum more desirable?