Britain can win the argument and shouldn’t fear a referendum


“Staying in: winning the argument to keep Britain in the EU”

Monday 18th February 2013, 17:00-19:00, FEPS office


The debate opened with a presentation of the IPPR-FEPS report by Will Straw and the findings were complemented with more recent facts and figures and latest polls, he also presented findings from the workshops. The results suggest that on issues which the public feels is very important such as tax, budget should be national level but in areas of non-military threats such as defence, agriculture, climate change, the public would like to see more international cooperation.

Whereas Cameron and the Conservative Party are often talking about the single market, Labour and the PES family clearly talk about the EU as a whole. Progressives realise that it’s about much more and there is more than just trade at stake here, it concerns our social standards, working conditions and our values. It seems that the Conservative party wants to roll back social policies.

To win the argument on keeping Britain in the EU, a referendum shouldn’t be feared. It was suggested that the press and media in Britain is certainly a too narrow focus, especially considering its direction, political priorities and ownership, rather a much wider debate would need to take place. Emphasis should be put on demonstrating how the EU can help in terms of jobs and raising living standards. Also showing how the EU affects our daily lives, even in matters such as telephone tariffs or the more recent development of food labelling and food safety standards.

Communication came up as a possible obstacle or something that definitely needs to be improved in many areas. People often feel that communication on European issues in the UK is misleading or non-existent and there was much agreement that the communication from the European Commission would serve better if its language altered to be better focused to its audience.

Nevertheless there is critique concerning whether holding a referendum is a good thing or not. Many arguments in favour were put forward and what this could bring about but also the obstacles it could entail. On the one hand, the opportunity for a debate is being provided and it is time to properly underline the benefits of being a member of the EU. However on the other hand it seems a dangerous, lengthy, untimely and costly approach.

Discussions are needed on some structural areas that should be reformed which would subsequently better serve all the Members of the EU. In this sense Britain could be seen as part of the solution not the problem.  The mood currently is that Britain’s situation is hindering integration and causing countries across Europe to consider that Europe might be better off without Britain. Indeed as Jo Leinen pointed out it has been widely stated recently ‘cherry-picking’ would not be accepted so the British would have to consider this when thinking about exiting the EU, on a one-way ticket.

Markedly, Massimo D’Alema believes Labour has done the right thing by standing firm and not proposing to hold a referendum, whereas others felt it inevitable and will be a good thing to push the debate along.

When asked if an alternative question might work better for the referendum, such as “do we want a more social Europe?” Will Straw explained that a simple in/out question would be the only one that could work. Otherwise it would be more likely that the British would reject it.

Emma Reynolds said that “Brits aren’t ideological about Europe like other nations. They are pragmatic.” It goes in line with what Will Straw was demonstrating from the research results, Brits are well below the EU average on seeing EU membership as a benefit.

Yet Emma Reynolds believes that if the EU was more outward looking and for instance seen spending minimum time negotiating new treaties, it may be seen in a more positive light by the public. She additionally quoted Douglas Alexander, British shadow Foreign Secretary who recently asserted “to contemplate shrinking our home market from 500 million consumers to just 60 million doesn’t make sense.”

Massimo D’Alema in his concluding remarks emphasised that progressives believe staying in is crucial for the UK. Yet we want a UK that is fully committed to Europe as only this will consequently provide better circumstances for enhancing European integration.

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