Richard North, 05/05/2012  

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On the face of it, Mandelson the call by former EU commissioner Peter Mandelson for a referendum on our membership of the EU is a good thing. At last, it might be said, we have powerful support for the proposition, which David Cameron might find it hard to ignore.

Such a strong supporter of the EU, however, would only call for an EU referendum if he thought one would help his cause. And, whatever one might think of Mandelson, in his role as EU trade commissioner, he acquired a reputation for being a shrewd tactician and an able negotiator. Thus, if he thinks that a referendum would be advantageous for him, he is probably right.

What Mandelson is actually doing, though, is arguing that the EU needs to reshape itself and push for more fiscal union, creating a "eurozone mark two". Only then, once the final shape of the new "Europe" has been determined, does he think the question of our membership should be put to a referendum, his idea being to give it a "clear mandate" to proceed.

Predictably, though, the Daily Wail presents this as giving "ammunition" to Cameron's "eurosceptic backbenchers" to pile pressure to hold a referendum.

However, Mandelson sees a poll not as the first step towards the exit but as "the best way of re-establishing a national consensus about future relations with Europe". It is part of his game plan to keep the UK in the EU.

And, as if this was not bad enough, yesterday's results on the referendums for elected mayors serve to remind us of the dangers of using plebiscites as a means of securing public approval for change.

In any referendum, there is always a very powerful bias towards the status quo. All things being equal, voters will tend to vote against change. And, although this worked for us in the mayoral referendums, in the 1975 referendum on the Common Market it did not.

The potential effect of this bias should be sufficient to warn us that any referendum on our membership of the EU would be an extremely risky venture, to the extent that anyone advocating such a referendum might be assumed to be in favour of staying in the Union.

That is, of course, exactly the case with Ian McKenzie, director of the People's Pledge campaign and now we have Mandelson joining in, the idea of having a referendum looks even less of a good idea than it ever did.


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