British referendum on EU membership

Many British people distrust the EU’s mission, its competence, its democratic accountability and its value for money.  David Cameron’s speech on 23 January 2012 has been seen by many as the beginning of a process which could lead to Britain leaving the EU, although he positioned it as an attempt to win the consent of the British people to a revised relationship with the EU.

The issue of Britain’s relationship with Europe can be seen as a problem in subsidiarity (2.7) – where it is relevant to ask what types of governance should be exercised at a European level and what should be controlled by individual member countries.  His speech, correctly, pointed out that the exercise of power in the EU has been unavoidably changed by the creation of the Eurozone and the measures required to enable that to work.  For example a common approach to balancing budgets ( will be necessary for Eurozone members, but not for the other 10 countries which are outside the Eurozone but remain in the EU and in the Single Market.

Whereas a renegotiation is clearly necessary for Europe, his speech was not positioned in that way.  A meaningful negotiation (2.4), between all the countries in Europe, would be transparent: laying out all the issues clearly and conducting the process openly.  It would be inclusive: taking account of the differences between countries’ wishes and needs, and not trying to impose an artificial uniformity.  It would also be balanced: an attempt to reach agreement which was beneficial to all the countries in the EU, irrespective of whether they are in the Eurozone or not.

Cameron’s proposal for an “in-out referendum” has been popular with his supporters, including the Daily Mail for example, but British politicians outside his own party have been critical.  Tony Blair likened Cameron’s negotiating stance to a scene in the film Blazing Saddles.

Whilst it might be appropriate at some point in time to ask the British people whether they support a revised relationship with Europe, that question is a distraction to the renegotiation of relationships within the EU as a whole.  The timing of this speech appears to have ignored the damage caused by prolonged uncertainty – an example of a national politician putting his own internal political agenda before his country’s real interests (6.6.4).  It appeared to other EU leaders to be a British attempt to unbalance the negotiation, by threatening to leave – a threat which has caused some resentment in Europe.  Reactions by businesses have been mixed.

One comment

  • Real Clear World has published an article – at -praising the timing of David Cameron’s speech on Britain’s EU membership. I made the following comment:
    David Cameron’s sense of timing only looks good from the perspective of short-term British party politics. The uncertainty over the membership of the EU will damage relationships with Britain’s trading partners and prospective investors. The necessary renegotiation of European governance should be a calm and meaningful process, and the issue of acceptance by the British people did not have to be raised until the end of the process. This issue should be considered in the context of the medium-to-long-term interests of all EU members, including Britain.


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