Some open questions in Britain’s EU referendum puzzle

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Scots have a go at David Cameron, during a protest in Edniburgh. [Global Justice Now/Flickr]

David Cameron has spoken of restricting benefits received by EU migrants. But details on the reforms he has requested, in exchange for Britain remaining in the EU, are vague, writes Melanie Sully.

Dr Melanie Sully is a British political scientist and director of the Vienna-based Institute for Go-Governance. This article first appeared in German in the Tiroler Tageszeitung.

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. As it happened, voters chose by an overwhelming majority to stay in the Common Market.

Now another Referendum Bill is undergoing scrutiny in the UK parliament and 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. The anti-EU camp has waited years for this referendum and want a long campaign. Currently they lack a clear strategy and a leader. UKIP head Nigel Farage is seen as more of a handicap than an asset.

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. David Cameron has rejected any veto arguing the Scots would have unilaterally voted on leaving the UK 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 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 turnout before the vote can be considered valid.

Speeches by Cameron talk of a 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.

Neither is it clear what the premier 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, David Cameron sought a compromise with EU partners to safeguard taxpayers’ money.

Great Britain is often criticised for championing national interests and it will require tact to convince the EU that reforms are coincidentally in the interests of the whole of Europe. 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 Scottish 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. First Minister Nicola Sturgeon has argued the EU should not meddle in such issues, and health should not be a matter for Brussels.

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.