Although it is a simple question – ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to Britain’s EU membership – David Cameron’s long-awaited speech on Europe raised concerns of greater complexity than this promise suggests.
The Eurozone crisis and its economic and political repercussions, as well as what some regard as the march towards ‘ever closer union’, have put pressure on Cameron to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with the EU.
As part of his “future of Europe”, Cameron outlined his desire for fairness inside and outside the Eurozone. This sits alongside rewritten rules on fiscal coordination and a banking union which could render the EU “transformed perhaps beyond recognition”.
Despite wide-ranging support for Cameron’s framework for reform, many do not back a referendum. Tony Blair stated that to promise the possibility of such fundamental change “4 or 5 years down the line” creates uncertainty in the interim.
Further, the former PM doubted the threat of a referendum would be effective in securing change in Europe: he insisted that multi-national cooperation, not an ultimatum, yields greater results, as well as acknowledging that referenda are “as much about who asks the question as the question [itself]”.
Whatever the pros and cons, an in/out referendum raises other questions close to the heart of students up and down the country. For example, in the case of an ‘out’ vote, what will happen to ‘Erasmus’ and the countless opportunities it provides?
Rob McFawn second year Modern European Studies (MES) told Impact, “It’s concerning for future years and prospective students… the year abroad would definitely be difficult financially [without Erasmus]”.
Cameron also espouses a Europe without “an insistence…that all countries want the same level of integration” – in short, “flexibility”. If European centre-right politicians suggest deeper integration as the correct route for Europe, why does the UK insist upon a looser union? The beginning of Cameron’s speech explores our island-nation character, but is this justification in itself?
Indeed, the Scottish National Party has declared, if successful in their bid for independence, that it would seek accession to the EU as soon as possible.
The French and German Foreign Ministers have responded to Cameron’s desire for greater independence by warning that a member state cannot cherry-pick the elements of its EU membership: “you can’t do Europe à la carte.” Closer to home, former EU Commissioner Peter Mandelson has likened Cameron’s vision for Europe to a ‘self-service cafeteria’.
Cameron made implicit reference, by demanding greater democratic accountability, to the European Commission, whose representatives are appointed rather than elected. The European Parliament, by contrast, is directly elected by the population of member states, and the Council of Ministers, which comprises national ministers from each member state, is indirectly elected.
He also seeks the repatriation of certain powers to assert the superiority of national parliaments – “the true source of democratic legitimacy”. Yet to achieve greater democratic legitimacy, the position of the European Parliament must be strengthened further so it can introduce laws, not just guide them.
To arrive at this point two things must happen: voter turnout for European elections must increase, which in turn requires balanced reporting of the EU; national governments, meanwhile, need to agree to deeper integration across more policy areas.
With the increasing role of the European Parliament comes greater democratic legitimacy for the EU as a whole and, as a result, perhaps more people voting. If an election turnout of 65.1% was sufficient to give the coalition a mandate in Westminster, so a similar level should provide the European Parliament with an equal mandate in Strasbourg.
Nevertheless, the PM knows he has the support of the majority of the public, whose disillusionment with the EU is now at an “all-time high.” Cameron also suggests that, at some stage, the question will have to be asked, and to delay is to hasten Britain’s exit. However, Labour leader Ed Miliband asserted that “the situation in the Tory party” – referring to the growing appeal (to voters and more Euro-sceptic Tory MPs alike) of UKIP – “not the situation in Europe”, was Cameron’s motive.
Of course, the situation in which a referendum could ultimately occur depends, at the moment, entirely upon Cameron getting re-elected.