Prof. Dr. Melanie Sully

Brexit: The Referendum Puzzle

Dr Melanie Sully writes in the Tiroler Tageszeitung 12.9. 2015 on the UK Exit Referendum following scrutiny in the House of Commons (plus Austrian FM4 Radio interview 8.9. 2015). Article published in shorter English version in Euractiv online 14.9. 2015

The Referendum Puzzle and the British Question
Dr Melanie Sully (English version of the article which appeared in the "Tiroler Tageszeitung" 12.9. 2015)

Referenda have been described as “a splendid weapon for demagogues and dictators”. The words were used by none less than Mrs Thatcher speaking in the House of Commons forty years ago opposing a Brexit referendum put forward for tactical reasons by the Labour government to avoid a party split. At that time there was no explicit provision in the treaties for withdrawal of a Member State but Labour indicated it would simply repeal relevant British legislation. As it happened voters chose by an overwhelming majority to stay in the Common Market.

Now Britons will have to decide if they wish to remain in a very different European Union which has moved considerably closer on substantial economic and political policies. A Referendum Bill will underwent intense scrutiny last week in the House of Commons and it now proceeds to the Upper House where the government has no majority.

The Bill has already been amended to rule out a specific date favoured by the government in May next year, the same day as elections to the Scottish parliament. Experts and Eurosceptics complained it would cause confusion and reduce the importance of the referendum. Recent speculation has surrounded dates in June next year but this would still drag the Brexit vote into the regional elections. The anti-EU camp has waited years for this referendum and want a long campaign. Currently they lack a clear strategy and a leader. Nigel Farage of the anti-EU UKIP party is seen as more of a handicap than an asset.

Not only is the timing of the referendum in dispute but also other logistics. Edinburgh wants a veto should England vote to get out of the EU and Scots vote to remain in and talks of another independence referendum should this occur. Cameron has rejected any veto arguing the Scots would have unilaterally voted on leaving the United Kingdom last year and the rest of the country had no say. In any case the decision on whether to hold a second Scottish independence referendum rests constitutionally in London. Apart from that there seems little taste in Scotland to go through the bruising experience of another referendum so soon. It is thought there could be a majority in the House of Lords supported by Liberals to extend the franchise to include 16 and 17 year olds. Some also want to give the vote to EU nationals living in the UK. This is opposed by the government on the grounds that referenda in other EU countries do not allow for British citizens to take part. Then again there is the question of whether there should be a minimum turn-out before the vote can be considered valid.

Not only are such technical issues unclear but the state of negotiations is shrouded in some mystery. Some points have percolated through in speeches of the Prime Minister such as tightening up on benefits received by EU migrants, more flexibility and more competition but official information on what might have been put to EU leaders at the last summit is the subject of inspired guesswork. In fact it is not really clear whether the negotiations have indeed started let alone how they may proceed or finish. This has prompted some to fear that the government will abruptly announce a fait accompli some time before Christmas and make a dash for an early vote. More transparency could reduce these prevalent suspicions.

Neither is it clear what Cameron would suggest if he fails to get the required concessions from Brussels, a prospect he refuses to countenance. The final terms should be voted on in parliament where opposition might be expected from an unholy alliance of right wing sceptics and the Scottish Nationalists and Labour critical of the lack of a European social policy for workers.

Whatever the outcome of the negotiations the British people will certainly need some guarantees of legal certainty that they could not be reversed after the referendum. The recent confusion over the bridging finance for Greece which included UK money highlighted that agreements can wobble in a crisis. In this case Cameron sought a compromise with EU partners to safeguard taxpayers’ money.

Great Britain is often criticised for championing national interests and not being European enough and it will require tact to convince the EU that reforms are coincidentally in the interests of the whole of Europe. Voters anyway are realistic enough in most countries to see that selfish power play dominates the political agenda. Cameron wants the concept of subsidiarity fleshed out which defends the principle of decisions being taken where possible at national or regional levels. In this he could be supported by the Scots. The Edinburgh parliament passed a law some years ago to fix a minimum price for alcohol to curb the drink problem north of the border but it has been challenged and is currently in the European Court of Justice. Nicola Sturgeon, first minister in Scotland, has argued the EU should not meddle in such issues and health should not be a matter for Brussels. The Scottish National Party it should be remembered is exactly that, a national party and is committed to defending national interests of Scotland.

What would happen if voters supported an exit from the European Union is not spelled out at this stage. The lack of a Plan B could prompt many, even those unhappy with membership, to after all stay in. One option according to Article 8 of the European Treaty is to work out a “special relationship” between Britain and EU members within some kind of neighbourhood policy with mutual rights and obligations and regular consultations.

As the referendum draws closer, the Prime Minister will come under pressure to state whether he and or his government would resign in the event of a “No” to Europe. The referendum vote is expected to be binding on the government but cannot theoretically bind parliament. And if the withdrawal process was set in motion then how feasible would it be to reverse, should a new government come to power. In other words would it be possible to withdraw from withdrawal and would the EU be interested. After all it could look on as the UK left and see it reapply without the cherries leaving the country worse off than before. On the other hand a “Yes” to Europe vote could give the EU the legitimacy it badly needs and take the wind out of the sails of sceptics waiting in the wings in many Member States.