The British debate on the EU Constitution: Can the Referendum be Won?

DISCLAIMER: All opinions in this column reflect the views of the author(s), not of EURACTIV Media network.

In this paper, Kirsty Hughes says that instead of taking Britain to
the heart of Europe, as a result of a possible “no” vote on the EU
Constitution, the Blair government may go down in history as those
responsible for taking the UK out of the EU.

Introduction (taken directly from the text)

Tony Blair on taking power in 1997 set out his goals of making
the UK a leading player in Europe and of changing the longstanding
British antipathy to the EU. Almost 8 years later the picture is
bleak. The UK public, out of all the 25 member states, has the
lowest proportion seeing the EU as a ‘good thing’ in regular EU
opinion polls. It is also the member state that currently looks
most likely to vote ‘no’ to the EU constitutional treaty in a
referendum expected to be held in 2006. It is quite possible the UK
could be the only one of the 25 to vote ‘no’. This would lead to a
heated debate, and perhaps little choice, about leaving the EU,
negotiating some form of ‘special partnership’ to ease the
divorce. 

So the referendum looks likely to be a defining point in
Britain’s relations with the Union. A ‘yes’ vote could, at the most
optimistic, represent the start of a new, more positive and less
ambivalent participation in the EU. But a ‘no’ vote will trigger a
major political crisis. A ‘no’ vote is unlikely to be driven by one
or two specific points of the constitution, it will be a general
rejection of much of what the EU stands for. No-one on any side of
the argument is ready to argue that the British public could or
would be asked to vote twice, as was the case with previous treaty
rejections by the Danes and Irish. 

The only thing that might rescue the UK from a ‘no’ vote being a
defining moment leading to a likely EU withdrawal is if a number of
other member states also vote ‘no’, especially if the ‘no’ were in
a founder member such as France or the Netherlands. But it already
speaks volumes about the UK’s semi-detached position in the EU that
a ‘no’ from France or the Netherlands is widely expected to lead to
the EU having to go back to the drawing board with the treaty,
whereas a UK ‘no’ is expected to provoke a debate on British
withdrawal. It also says much about the government’s ‘strategy’
that other such ‘no’ votes appear to be actively hoped for, as a
way off the hook of the UK’s referendum, despite the crisis other
‘no’ votes could throw the Union into. 

This article considers some of the key issues and attitudes
driving the UK debate. It analyses the government’s general
European policies and specifically its approach to the
constitution, and considers the prospects for the referendum
campaign. It argues that the government’s approach essentially
accepts, instead of challenging, far too much of the sceptics’
ground, and that without a much more positive argument about both
the EU and the constitution, the referendum is likely to be lost,
with dramatic consequences – the most pro-European prime minister
in the UK for over quarter of a century could be responsible for
the UK leaving the EU. 

If this is not to be the outcome, the arguments for Europe need
to start now – but while the ‘no’ side is up and running, activity
on the ‘yes’ side is hamstrung in part by lack of confidence and
resources but especially by the government’s determination to keep
Europe off the political agenda as far as possible until after the
general election expected in May 2005. 

Click here to access the paper by Kirsty
Hughes
, Associate Fellow, Birkbeck College and Visiting
Fellow, European Institute, London School of Economics.

Subscribe to our newsletters

Subscribe
Contribute