Why Europhiles need to embrace a referendum

Whether we like it or not, there is going to be an EU referendum sooner or later. The Conservatives have promised a referendum, and while that’s no guarantee it will happen in 2017, it is hard to see how it can be put off indefinitely.

It’s a common adage that the first thing politicians do upon being elected is start breaking their manifesto promises, but having set out such a clear pledge will make it very difficult to back down later without serious repercussions. Even if the Tories don’t win in 2015, the referendum commitment will stay in the manifesto – it would take a very bold leader to remove it. And there will be a Conservative government (or a UKIP coalition) sooner or later; when there is, a referendum is almost inevitable.

If nothing happens, the situation will only fester. UKIP thrive on the notion that the British public have not been consulted about the EU – the 2:1 pro-Europe majority in the 1975 referendum notwithstanding. And indeed, plenty of anti-EU feeling comes not from genuine antipathy towards Europe, but from being left un-consulted; no one likes policies made without their agreement.

Now, if we are to have a referendum, doesn’t it make much more sense for Europhiles to embrace it rather than be dragged into it against our will? It hardly looks good to be seen avoiding consulting the public; voters don’t like politicians who act like they know better than them. If we accept the need for a debate on Britain’s membership now, we can start convincing people and organise the cross-party campaign infrastructure needed to win a referendum. We cannot pretend this is something that will just go away.

At the moment, however, most Europhiles are apologetic or evasive about the EU. While Ed Miliband has come out in support of Britain’s membership, he’s couched his arguments in terms of minimising the EU’s impact and been careful to oppose any further transfer of power (making a half-hearted promise of a referendum if such a transfer should happen). Labour may be broadly pro-Europe, but the party has been keen to avoid the issue where it can. This may all be good politics, but it is not the kind of debate we need.

We need unashamedly pro-European politics. We need to make the case for free movement of labour within the EU rather than campaigning to curtail it as much as we can. Immigration is good for Britain – EU migrants contribute far more in taxes than they take out in benefits – we need to convince people of that.

European bureaucracy has as much sex appeal as a road accident, but it is nonetheless necessary; we need politics that doesn’t try to hide every unpopular decision behind Brussels’ regulations but instead takes the time to explain why these rules are needed for the Common Market to function. In the 21st Century, free trade is about much more than low tariffs; having a homogenous set of regulations makes it much easier for businesses to operate across Europe. It is much easier to manufacture a washing machine that fits one Europe-wide standard than to have to follow 28 sets of national regulations. That is not to say we must be unswervingly uncritical of all things EU – as with any institution there’s plenty to criticise – but we must stop using the EU as a bogeyman and start dispelling some of the more ridiculous myths.

But so far, the only really strident pro-European voice is coming from the Lib-Dems. That’s not enough. Nick Clegg to his credit makes his Europhilia clear and is a competent speaker to boot, but it’s hard to think of a more toxic brand in British politics. Any future ‘in’ campaign must be more than a Lib-Dem led collection of left-wing students and activists. It must court business support, and look for friends in all the major political parties; it must be a wholly mainstream campaign. Get Ken Clarke to lead it, or if having a Tory in charge of what will most likely still be a predominantly left-wing outfit is too much, have a Labour grandee head the campaign. Perhaps Alistair Darling would like to give it a go. After all, he’s got experience in the referendum-winning business.

Even just holding a referendum in Britain will damage business confidence and deter investment. But whilst the prospect of an ‘out’ vote would be disastrous for the economy, prolonged uncertainty is hardly beneficial. If a referendum has to happen anyway, it is better to get it over with sooner rather than later. Even if it’s not a once-and-for-all decision, a vote to stay in will at least take the wind out of Eurosceptic sails and settle the matter for a political generation. A once-and-for-now decision is better than an unanswered question.

One could be forgiven for imagining any referendum would lead to a clear exit vote, putting the country on a one-way street to insular decline. But for all UKIP’s recent successes, support for Britain’s EU membership is at its highest since 1991. This is not just a temporary phenomenon, either; for most of the last 30 years there has been a strong majority for staying in. There is also hope to be had from the Scottish Independence Referendum; here, we saw a clear victory for pragmatism and the status quo over arguments couched heavily in emotion and nationalism.

Just like in Scotland, the ‘in’ campaign will find it hard to summon the same levels of passion as the ‘out’ campaign; the status quo is inherently duller and much harder to spin into a utopic vision. But that’s all the more reason to start work now. We need to mobilise the quiet majority of Europhiles, debunk the myths, and argue hard for Britain’s continued membership of the EU. We need to engage with the question and make a compelling case; doing anything else surrenders the debate to UKIP and risks an impassioned and ill-advised exit. Britain’s future lies with Europe. We must make sure of it.