This Referendum Won't Settle the European Question

Hoping the European issue will go away on 24 June? Forget it, says Tim Oliver: the referendum will be the end of the beginning of the latest chapter in Britain’s fraught relationship with Europe.

The Referendum debate has been filled with speculation about what will follow the vote on 23 June. Amid all the promises of economic doom or new-found liberty hides an uncomfortable fact that all involved in the debate know but want to try and ignore: the vote won’t settle Britain’s agonising over its European question. If anything it could make things worse. And that applies to whatever way the vote goes. Pressure for further referendums on European matters will soon build. In no time at all we could be going through this all again.

When in January 2013 David Cameron committed the Conservative Party, should it win the next General Election, to seek a renegotiated UK-EU relationship to then be put to the British people in an in/out referendum, he declared it was time to ‘settle this European question.’ Two years later at the February 2015 European Council, Cameron called on his European counterparts to help him secure a regeneration for a referendum that would then settle the issue once for a generation. Many of them must have rolled their eyes with disbelief.

The European question in British politics is a multifaceted one, in no small part because it’s never clear what the question is. Is it about the Conservative Party and a fight over its leadership? Is it about borders and control of immigration? Is it about sovereignty? Is it about economics, jobs and trade deals? Is it about democracy? Is it about geopolitical matters, such as a resurgent Russia, the future of NATO, the challenges and opportunities from emerging powers, and the future of relations with the USA and other close allies in the North Atlantic and Europe? Is it about globalisation? Is it about the future of the NHS, transatlantic trade deals and a host of other factors so far raised in the debate?

Is it about Britain’s place in an EU that has and will continue to change? Is it about managing the UK’s internal tensions such as over Scotland, Northern Ireland, English nationalism and other identities within the UK, or a global London that dominates the UK and is headed off in a direction some elsewhere in the UK resent? Is it about all these things? And if so, how can we hope they’ll all be answered in one question given many cannot be answered in a simple way or are beyond the control of the result, as is the case over matters such as a changing EU or geopolitics?

One way we can see how the question won’t go away is to think through what referendums – or neverendums – on European issues might be either called for or triggered after June 23. If the vote is to remain then several possibilities arise. If the majority favouring remain is a slim one or based on a low turnout then political pressure will soon build for a new vote. Eurosceptics claim the 1975 vote was rigged, and similar claims could easily follow the 2016 vote. The UK will find itself in an EU in a state of flux, especially due to change inside the Eurozone and Schengen. Any new treaty or transfer of powers will trigger the 2011 European Union Act that requires a referendum.

While the ensuing vote might be on the technicalities of transferring powers, it could easily become another in/out vote. Eurosceptic groups, or parties such as UKIP, are unlikely to disappear because they are fuelled by issues that are not wholly about Europe. Pro-EU groups will quickly disappear and UK politics will try to return to the norm of ignoring the European question. If anything, Eurosceptics will remain energised by their fear that having voted to stay in the EU it will only be a matter of time before the UK has to hold a referendum on joining the Euro.

This is not to argue that a vote to leave will offer a more settled relationship. A slim majority to leave, or one based on the votes of an older generation or a low turnout, would produce some of the same arguments as a slim vote to remain. The exit negotiations that follow a vote to leave will define what ‘leave’ means. The argument that a vote to leave could then secure a real renegotiated relationship, such as that made by Boris Johnson before he flip-flopped on it, might have been dismissed by others, but the possibility remains. So too does the possibility of calls for the British people to vote on the exit deal and post-withdrawal relationship eventually put to them by the rest of the EU.

Having won a vote to leave, Eurosceptics are unlikely to be in any mood to make concessions over such issues as free-movement. Whatever new relationship the UK does agree to will be one Eurosceptics will watch carefully for any hint of the EU reneging on. Domestic politics could see the UK Parliament or Government make a decision, possibly through a referendum, that compromises that deal, as happened with the Swiss when they voted to reject free-movement with the EU. A second independence referendum in Scotland could also be triggered should the Scots vote to remain but the overall UK vote be to leave. Finally, a referendum can be expected should the UK wish to rejoin the EU or change its post-withdrawal relationship from something such as a free trade deal to membership of the EEA.

This all begs the question of whether there is anything to be gained from holding a referendum. Supporters in both camps point to how even if a referendum doesn’t settle an issue immediately, it is an opportunity for the general public to focus on an issue and gain a better understanding of it. Denmark and Ireland are two countries where regular votes have led to a more settled relationship with the EU. But this has not stopped the publics in both saying no to EU treaties, and in the case of Denmark, showing strong support for Eurosceptic parties and policies. They also remind us that more than one referendum will be needed to reach the point where there is anything that resembles a settled relationship.

Perhaps the experiences of Quebec, and potentially Scotland, give more grounds for hope. A second vote to remain would crush the hopes of those hoping to leave, as it did to Quebec nationalists and is something Scottish nationalists fear. The problem here is that in both the Canada-Quebec and Scotland-UK examples, the smaller part is trying to withdraw from a relatively stable larger political union. The EU’s continued evolution means that, whether in or out, the UK will find its relationship and debate shaped by changes elsewhere in an EU from which it can never quite escape.