In Britain the wide debate focuses around an in- and an out-campaign. But where does this brilliant idea to have a referendum based on a simple in or out come from anyway? If carefully conducted studies commissioned by the House of Lords show there is no significant room for the rebalancing of competences, why have a referendum in the first place?
And even if one would have a referendum, shouldn’t it be better this referendum would focus on the revision of competences between the EU and the Member States in general, i.e. gear towards a (specific) revision of the EU Treaties, rather than a simple step in or out?
Doesn’t the idea of a referendum in which one has to choose between in and out only conflict with the UK’s pick and choose policy, opting out of this and that à la carte? That is to say, if you make it an in or out choice, you seem to suggest that it’s really just taking on board everything the EU does or not taking on board anything the EU does through the workings of the EU, and doesn’t that conflict with the stance that being in the EU is not just a matter of being totally in or totally out, but rather by preference a relationship of picking and choosing?
Well, on a more refined level the question is of course whether or not we can pick and choose enough at the EU level. This includes perhaps the idea that there would be more picking and choosing if the UK were to be detached from the EU, which, wise people show, is not evident if the UK still wishes to deal with the EU. But if you would argue this is the underlying motive of the referendum, shouldn’t this referendum really be more precise in its questions?
Further, what if we would start from the early conclusion that it would be better to focus on the revision of existing legislation within the frame of the existing Treaties, wouldn’t it be sensible to have general referendum on different subject domains illustrating how people think about the way current legislation is in line with the conferral of powers and the principles of subsidiarity and proportionality?
In a way the EU does this (partly) by trying to create the currently largely unknown ‘Lighten the load Have your say’ campaign, which engages people with the EU to help the EU think about how to cut unnecessary red tape and improve legislation. But are people changing their views based on the EU’s efforts to adapt legislation that is perceived to overburden (micro-) businesses and other parties? Will the information given by people on this ‘forum’ really create more legitimacy amongst the UK and other EU MS populations?
Moreover, shouldn’t the referendum be stalled, until after the effects of the likely shifts in policy that will result from this form of consultation have taken their proper effect in the EU? Wouldn’t that be a fairer way for the UK to deal with the EU, as it already is generally loud and clear that some things (red tape in particular, certain budget issues perhaps) should be dealt with differently? This would at least give the EU time to address UK concerns, and would also be in line with the general outcome of UK the balance of competence review, which seeks after reform without major shifts in the balance of competences.
In addition, the European Commission has now launched new plans to strengthen the internal market, which is very much in line with the current priorities of the British government for EU reform. So all the more, the UK is currently already being listened to by the European Commission in its agenda, and it seems that it would only be fair to the EU if it was given the chance first to work out these plans in practice before the UK would make the real step towards a referendum on UK membership of the EU. Again, if such a referendum would make any sense at all.
The striving for a referendum is only a paradox with the renegotiation of the EU-UK Relationship as the process leading up to the referendum is informative in itself and the referendum is not binding and likely will not produce results clearly pointing in one direction or another. Besides, even if the referendum would be in favor of the out campaign, this would likely not result in extreme redefinition of EU-UK relations, as a UK out of the EU will still wish to hold many ties with the EU. This may thus be interpreted in a broad sense as a reform rather than a radical departure of the EU-UK relationship. The latter solution would likely imply a lesser say of the UK in the way the EU would or would not then reform itself anyway. However that’s not evident either, as countries may come to the UK seeking for inspiration in the way the UK would have redefined its political and economic structures. Thereby the UK may actually gain cloud in the EU as compared to when it would focus on reform from within the EU. Of course, this would hardly seem a legitimate logic for the UK to leave the EU.
Still, one may wonder, if there is a consensus within the political classes that the Balance of Competence review is not widely off the mark, how likely it will be that this will cause a ‘Whitehall Whitewash’ reaction by the opposition and the citizens? In other words, what degree of unhappiness is there among the British population with its current establishment? And, how willing are they to express discontent via an anti-EU vote? This is of course an interesting question that would warrant a referendum, but my guess is that an informed view about the outcome of the balance of competence review would aid the public debate.
The problem on the matter of informing the public, as rightfully pointed out by others, is still that a general assessment of the Balance of Competence review is lacking, also recognizing that an assessment that states that ‘on the balance the EU competences are not challenged’ is not very informative either. Of course there are the three reports on the different sectoral outcomes by CEPS, which is already a lot better than anything else. These could help people already to make an informed decision.
Relatedly, it is also interesting what is being done by clever entrepreneurs from Data Quarks, who claim to have made indicators of impact assessments on different parts of organizations that can accurately assess the effects of a potential Brexit on companies. Unfortunately one pays large sums of money to get a subscription, so it’s not a tool for your average citizen to tap into. There could be a role for the British government to finance public access of this type of course. A better suggestion one may wish to take seriously , is the option for politicians to stimulate local communities to pick a reliable candidate who will make a study and synthesis of the balance of competence review and will spread this information via (a series of) information evenings. Although this may not guarantee uniformity in the way the public will receive the information, it will have the potential to strengthen the objectivity of the public opinion to a significant extent. Thus, before taking any decisions on a referendum, let us gather, study and educate, so as to gain the most objective view possible.