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Making the most of an EU referendum

The prospect of Britain holding a referendum on its EU membership is not particularly appealing. It would likely entail a lengthy and hard-fought campaign (the groundwork for which is starting to be laid now) and divert attention from pressing national issues. Beyond becoming the biggest distraction in Europe, an EU referendum could bring out impassioned divisions between people and geographies which might be difficult to put back afterwards.

If Britain voted to leave, the intervening years would be dominated by European negotiations, bringing with them tremendous political and economic uncertainty. If Britain voted to stay, it’s difficult to imagine that the questions surrounding the UK’s place in Europe would simply go away. An EU referendum has equal potential to challenge the future of the United Kingdom. If a vote to leave the EU had the support of a majority in England, but not in Scotland, Wales and/or Northern Ireland, it would call devolution into question and precipitate a constitutional crisis.

If EU membership is weighed on the economics, it’s abundantly clear that staying in the EU is better for Britain. However, the current debate is purely a question of politics. This May’s election is supposed to tell us whether an in/out referendum will take place in 2017 (or even 2016). Should it come to pass, an EU referendum is best viewed as an opportunity to put forward a strong and positive case for the UK in the EU.

In order to have the best chance of success, the pro-membership side should firmly stick to a positive campaign. While convincing sceptical voters will be challenging, crafting and maintaining a forward-looking narrative should be relatively easy, considering the plethora of political, economic, social and cultural benefits deriving from EU membership. At the same time, to be credible, this also means being honest about where the EU can and should improve what it does and how it goes about it. The key argument must be that change should happen with the UK as part of the EU and indeed that Britain can help drive that change.

The Scotland independence referendum resulted in an increased public engagement with politics, though it remains to be seen if this interest is sustained in the long term. Could an EU referendum inspire the public on European issues? It’s difficult to say in advance of a contest which may not take place, and in Britain at least the finer points of EU politics have always seemed to capture few imaginations.

However, greater popular engagement with the EU could be more likely if political leaders changed their approach. In UK politics, this means being more open about EU issues, going into more detail and relying on facts instead of impressions. Enhancing Parliament’s role in Britain’s EU policy and allowing parliamentary scrutiny of EU affairs to be more powerful and prominent would be all to the good.

In the EU institutions, this means focusing on the areas and policies which are truly important and best done at European level, and realising and accepting (which the Member States should as well) that the UK is unlikely to ever want as much integration as other states.

It’s essential to make the most of any EU referendum and to set out a compelling vision for Britain in Europe. However, absent any vote, there’s every reason to build the positive case now. To do so would ensure a referendum would be less worry, since some voters might be convinced of EU membership in advance.

Such efforts should contribute to the long-term and sustained movement to promote not just UK membership of the EU, but UK leadership in it. The result might be that a larger part of the public challenges political leaders to be more engaging and forthright with them when it comes to European affairs.

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How to cite this article:

Salamone, A (2015) ‘Making the most of an EU referendum’, Britain’s Europe (Ideas on Europe), 12 February 2015,

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