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EU referendum: crucially different from 1975

Richard North, 26/01/2013  


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If we take Mr Cameron's Wednesday speech as "Day One" of a four-year referendum campaign, then we are now on day four. And already the legacy media are running out of steam, finding it hard to offer anything of very great interest or originality.

That is not to say that the idea of having an EU referendum some time in the future is devoid of interest – very far from it. But the media, which has always struggled to write intelligently on the European Union, lacks the depth to be able to analyse the issues and come up with anything helpful to its readers.

The Daily Mail, for instance, offers a laborious piece from Dominic Sandbrook, drawing parallels between these current events and the 1975 referendum.

While there indeed appear to be resemblances between today and forty years ago, inasmuch as we appear to be looking at a plebicite based on the outcome of a "renegotiation", there are many important differences. Rather than dwell on the similarities, therefore, it might be more profitable to explore those differences.

Starting at the beginning, though, things do look superficially the same. Back all those years ago, the story starts in 1974, on 28 February to be precise, when the Wilson government gained power. This produced a hung parliament with Labour gaining 301 seats (up 13), Conservatives 297 (down 37) and the Liberals on 14 (up eight).

Hampered by having no overall majority, and a divided party, Wilson played the Europe card. This was followed on 1 April with Jim Callaghan asking the EEC for a renegotiation on the terms of membership. Then, on 10 October, there was then another general election, when Wilson strengthened his position ending up with an overall majority of three seats.

With a wafer-thin majority, and his party still split over "Europe", Wilson followed up on 9 December with the Paris Summit which marked the start of the renegotiation process.

Come 1975, the referendum campaign was announced on 7 January, the White Paper was published on 26 February and the renegotiations were concluded on 11 March, with the Cabinet endorsing the terms on 18 March (by a vote of 16 to 7), followed by a Commons endorsement on 9 April (398 to 172 votes). The Referendum Bill passed its Second Reading the following day (312 to 248 votes), and the poll was on 5 June.

When Wilson announced his intention to have a referendum, therefore, he was heading a minority government, but not in formal coalition with the Liberals. He did not make it conditional on his winning the next election and, at that October election, "Europe" was barely an issue, being brought up respectively by 16 percent of Conservative and 47 percent of Labour voters, as against 82 and 73 percent of Conservative and Labour voters who expressed concern at the cost of mortgages.

The similarity, therefore, is that Wilson was using the referendum as a means of settling a long-running division within the ranks of his own party, and so is Mr Cameron. He is, of course, also seeking to gain electoral advantage, and in particular, to neutralise UKIP, which – of course - did not exist then. This is what the Irish Times calls a "cynical political ploy", putting party before country.

That said, such similarities - and even the differences - as may exist are not at all crucial. What really makes the difference now is the institutional architecture of the Communities, which have been re-born as the European Union, and the fact that Cameron is, ostensibly, asking for a treaty change.

Back in 1975, there was no prospect of changing the Treaty of Rome in any material sense and, crucially, the negotiations were handled by the Member States, meeting during "summits". These were without the formal structure of the European Council, without formal input from the Commission, and with no input from the European Parliament, the members of which then were not directly elected.

What now must happen is that the 27 (28) Member European Council must meet, and formally invoke the revision procedure set out in Article 48 of the TEU. Here, there is the "ordinary" procedure and the "simplified" procedure, with the default mode being the "ordinary" procedure.

This actually requires the European Council to convene a convention, after consulting, inter alia with the European Parliament. However, if the Council wants to adopt the simplified procedure, it must first obtain the consent of the parliament.

Here, then, is a major difference. In 1975, Wilson had a great deal of control over the timetable. In the current round, Cameron has none. He is entirely in the hands of the EU Institutions, in the first instance, the European Council and then, especially, the European Parliament.

This makes a key figure in the coming drama the EP president, currently Martin Schultz, who is interviewed in a recent edition of Die Welt. And it is here that the UK political background to the referendum is highly significant.

Schultz sees Cameron as "motivated domestically", and "resents" (Das nehme ich ihm übel) the British prime minister's action in "threatening" Europe for his own political gain.

It will then be up to Schultz (or his successor) to decide on Mr Cameron's fate, and whether, if Cameron wins the next election, he can meet his 2017 timetable. Any blockage – in fact anything short of the wholehearted co-operation of the European Parliament – and there is no way the 2017 referendum timetable can be met. Specifically, if the EP president insists on a convention, negotiations are almost bound to run into 2018.

Furthermore, a hostile parliament will have a huge effect on the outcome of the convention, to the disadvantage of Mr Cameron, and can make it very difficult for the subsequent IGC to accommodate changes that will play well to the British people.

Ironically, the changes in the procedures which are set to make Mr Cameron's life difficult came in with the Lisbon Treaty, on which he refused to have a referendum. Now he does want a referendum, he is dealing with a very different institutional architecture, which could make it almost impossible for him to achieve anything.

That, possibly, will underscore the major difference between this and the last referendum. In Wilson's time, there was a renegotiation result – albeit a sham – to put before the people. In this case, if he is to stick to the 2017 timetable, Mr Cameron may have to go to the polls empty-handed.

At best, according to Jonathan Powell in The Guardian, Mr Cameron may only be able to achieve a few cosmetic changes, in which circumstances he would find it difficult to lead a campaign with all his "heart and soul" for Britain to remain in Europe, as he said he would if he got a good deal.

Thus, we could end up with a prime minister actively campaigning to leave the EU. That really would be different.

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