Principle and Realpolitik: why the Lib Dems should back an EU in/out referendum

by Stephen Tall on June 18, 2014

EU Flag at the European Parliament at Strasbourg. Photo credit: Some rights reserved by European ParliamentMy co-editor Caron Lindsay has asked the following question, amid reports senior Lib Dems want the party to commit to an in/out EU referendum in the next parliament: What do you think? Stay as we are or shift our position?”

My own view is the party has nothing to lose by offering a referendum in the 2015 manifesto. As I’ve pointed out before, the Lib Dem line on an EU referendum has been remarkably consistent over the last few years – far more so than the Tories (remember David Cameron’s cast-iron guarantee?) or Labour (remember 2004 EU referendum U-turn prior to their 2008 U-turn?). Specifically, the Lib Dems have held fast to the line: when a British government signs up for a fundamental change in the relationship between the UK and the EU there should be an in/out referendum, not simply a referendum limited only to the changes agreed in the Treaty itself.

There’s a good argument for sticking to that line, not least avoiding the economic uncertainty that a possible ‘Brexit’ from the EU might trigger.

However, as Caron points out, the EU is likely to avoid at all costs any major treaty change in the forseeable in order to avoid triggering hard-to-win treaty referendums in many countries, including the UK. The Lib Dem line will, therefore, increasingly come to be seen as a way of postponing a public vote, not a good look for a party with the word ‘Democrat’ in its name or which has just fought a national election billing itself as ‘The Party of IN’.

Indeed, there’s a very good (if cynical) argument for saying the party should have argued for an in/out EU referendum a couple of years ago. After all, it’s not the Lib Dems who are split on the issue (or indeed Labour) – it’s the Tories who would most likely have torn themselves to pieces , as their Europhobes and Eurorealists waged war against each other. It’s an easier argument to make with hindsight, though – economic concerns rightly dominated, and such a tactic might just as easily have backfired.

One further Realpolitik point… In truth the Lib Dem line on an EU in/out referendum is academic. If there were to be a second Lib/Con Coalition we know we would have to concede a referendum: it will be one of their ‘red lines’.  Indeed, I know some Lib Dems would rather not pre-concede the point, knowing the Lib Dems acceding to a referendum could be traded for a policy we genuinely cared about.

If there were instead to be a Lib/Lab Coalition, however, it’s highly likely Labour would wish to avoid a referendum: Miliband understandably doesn’t want his first two years as Prime Minister dominated by an issue low down voters’ pecking order of priorities. The Lib Dems would be unable to insist on a referendum as the junior party: Labour would get the blame for opposing it.

I don’t pretend either of these last two points are pretty or principled: they are neither. However, they are reality and need to be factored into the party’s consideration.

My personal view is an EU in/out referendum, regardless of its rights or wrongs, is now an inevitability. It is definitely winnable – not least thanks to the Nigel Farage Paradox, which has seen Ukip support rise at the same time as opposition to the UK’s membership of the EU falls – and is the best way to tackle head-on anti-EU arguments… As long as Nick Clegg and the Lib Dems also remember to campaign for reform of the EU, and not for the status quo!

* Stephen Tall is Co-Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice, and editor of the 2013 publication, The Coalition and Beyond: Liberal Reforms for the Decade Ahead. He is also a Research Associate for the liberal think-tank CentreForum and writes at his own site, The Collected Stephen Tall.