A referendum on Britain’s EU membership is a sure fire way to encourage the breakup of the UK

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David Cameron has pledged to hold a referendum on the UK’s EU membership if his Conservative party wins a majority at the British general election in May. Jo Murkens writes on the impact an EU referendum would have on the UK’s place in Europe and on the UK as a whole.

A referendum on European Union membership has been a longstanding demand from the Eurosceptic/phobic wing of UK politics. They regard the plebiscite and the prospect of withdrawal as a rejuvenation of national sovereignty and democracy. Over the past few years David Cameron has acceded to the demands by promising a referendum on EU membership in 2017. The three main obstacles he needs to overcome before then are concluding negotiations on reforming the European Union, or changing the UK’s current terms and conditions of EU membership – and, of course, the small matter of winning the May 2015 general election for the Conservatives with an overall majority.

The idea of a referendum opens up a space for discussing the principle of UK membership as well as the details of EU policy, institutional reform, and possible alternatives. This short piece is a comment on the UK’s continued failure to contribute to the EU’s political goals as well as on its failure to understand the EU’s relevance for the integrity of the United Kingdom.

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What can we learn from the party of “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists”?

16th May 2014

Annabelle Huet reports on Joe Twyman’s lecture on Europe, the European Elections and the Rise of UKIP at the Constitution Unit 

751 members of the European Parliament will be elected from 28 countries between 22nd and 25th May 2014. On May 22nd Britain will vote for 73 members in total – the third highest proportion of members after Germany and France. Yet most voters are only vaguely aware of the consequences of their choice on European affairs. People and political analysts alike seem more interested in discussing the rise of UKIP, the UK’s foremost anti-establishment and Eurosceptic party, than the future of EU policy.

At the latest UCL Constitution Unit Seminar Joe Twyman, a founding director of YouGov, presented statistics that show that there is indeed a reason for this interest. This time, “the rise of UKIP” is much more striking than what has been observed during previous elections. Why? Because UKIP has gained a 10% overall rise in the polls and is currently predicted to surpass even the Conservatives next Thursday. Less than two weeks before the vote, YouGov’s polls show an estimated 31% of the electorate are intending to vote for UKIP. This would translate to 30 UKIP seats in the European Parliament, more than twice as many as they currently have. Statistics from previous cycles show a return to low levels of support for UKIP shortly after European elections took place, but this time Twyman predicts support for UKIP could well remain high until next year’s general election.

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Video: The Euro Crisis and its Implications for European Institutions (Charles Grant)

Charles Grant (Centre for European Reform)

Date and Time: Wednesday 13 June, 6.00pm
Venue: Council Room, The Constitution Unit

The euro crisis has led not only to new EU treaties, but also to profound power shifts among various member-states and the EU institutions. The European Commission has never been so weak, while Germany has never been so strong.

Co-founder and director of the Centre for European Reform Charles Grant will discuss the implications of the ongoing crisis for the way European institutions operate. He is a former Brussels correspondent for the Economist and the author of many publications on the EU, as well as a former director of the British Council.

Catch 22 in the European Debt Negotiations

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One has to pity David Cameron’s position in Brussels last night, with cannons to the left and to the right of him.

The British Government must have known that its request for special protection for the financial industry in the City of London was doomed to fail, and so it did. The crisis context of the negotiations meant that conceding to one special request would lead to 26 others such requests and ultimately to the failure of any deal. In negotiations that are essentially about financial regulation, seeking an exemption from financial regulation was courageous (as Sir Humphrey might have said) as it was guaranteed to raise the hackles of the other participants.

But the decision to veto an EU-level treaty cannot have been easy either, even if it pleased Tory Europhobes (although the decision is also reported to have been approved by Nick Clegg). Britain is now out exactly where British ministers have said in recent weeks that they did not wish to be: looking from the outside at a new international treaty amongst 23 of its fellow EU members. If the Government holds to this position, Britain’s position is likely to becomes like that of Norway and other EEA members in relation to the EU itself: very deeply affected by

policymaking to which it can no longer contribute.  The Government retains some limited options – it can, for example, refuse to allow the new agreement between the remaining countries go ahead within the framework of the EU, although this would scarcely make the UK more popular with other European governments – but it cannot stop the 23 still in the process negotiating a free-standing international treaty amongst themselves. Just how isolated Britain will be in this new environment depends on decisions in a small number of states. Hungary, Denmark and Sweden, in particular, may take the same route as Britain, although they have not been quite so definitive.

If the Prime Minister was faced with Catch-22 last night, spare a thought for those countries Britain has left behind. Britain’s disruptive presence as a sort of curmudgeonly uncle at the European top table can be very useful to other countries that, although not so Eurosceptic, are nonetheless wary of the overweening power of France and Germany within Europe. The dominance of France and Germany in the lead up to these negotiations should be sending alarm bells ringing all over the rest of Europe even if, as the Polish foreign minister put it last week, German inactivity has been more frightening than German action during this crisis. With the retreat of the British negotiators, the deal brought to the table by Angela Merkel and Nicholas Sarkozy will become that little bit more difficult for the remaining nations to resist.

This is unfortunate, because – for the small countries and the indebted countries in particular – it is a bad deal. It is a quixotic attempt to entrench one side of a long debate about economics (that between Keynesians and Hayekians). ‘Balanced budget’ amendments must be inserted into the constitutions of the member states, with the potential for enforcement action to be taken against violators (perhaps by the European Court of Justice and the European Commission). Default on public debt will be prohibited. Austerity will continue not just as economic policy but also as constitutional law. The European Central Bank will not be empowered to directly protect struggling debtor states by buying government bonds. And the Franco-German proposals even try to set up a majority voting rule that would prevent a small country from acting as a hold-out.

This is all very worrying. With the possible exception of Ireland (where there has been a very slight growth in economic activity, although this follows an enormous contraction), austerity has not worked so far and some argue that the insistence on austerity is what has brought us to this pass (c.f. innumerable Paul Krugman columns for the NY Times over the last few years, for example). If, as a famous German once said, the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result, what term should we use for the act of enshrining this methodology as constitutional law?

And in any case, will this constitutional law really be immutable? The 14th Amendment of the US Constitution provides that the validity of the public debt of the United States shall not be questioned. But in the US this does not apply to debt issued by cities or states, which do default on occasion (notably in 2009 when California started issuing IOUs instead of cheques to its employees) and might provide a better analogy with European member states and devolved administrations. And notwithstanding the 14th Amendment the US did effectively default on a small amount of its national debt in 1979 by late payment (although on that occasion the late payment appears, rather comically, to have been an administrative error) and in 1933 when it refused to repay some debt in gold following the collapse of the Gold Standard. The existing deficit arrangements for the Euro area were flouted by numerous states (including notably France and Germany) over the last decade.

All of these arrangements seem to be built up around three premises: (1) austerity will work; (2) the rules will not be flouted; (3) normal democratic politics can survive extreme austerity for up to a decade in the heavily indebted countries. What happens if one of these premises turns out to be wrong?

Who Is Interested in the EU?

One of the things we know very little about is the requester. Who are they? What do they want? And what do they do with the information? The general pattern seems to be that the public is the biggest user, followed by small groups of journalists and activists. At certain levels, and in certain countries, particularly the USA and Canada, business is also a big requester.

A recent report from the EU commission on use of its own access legislation has shown some interesting variation against this general pattern (though it needs to be remembered that total requests in 2010 were only 6127 compared with 5055 in 2009).

The biggest users of EU access legislation are academics (23%), followed by other public authorities (13%) and lawyers (10%). It’s quite possible that the deadlines on returning the information mean that only researchers with time to spare (e.g. academics, lawyers) use it, rather than those with very strict deadlines such as journalists (3%). Other EU institutions make up 8 % of requesters-is that indicative of information sharing problems?

Another interesting question, given the size of the EU, is which countries they are coming from. Belgium is top, accounting for 17 % of all requests, Germany is second on 16 %,France on 9 % and Italy on 8 %. The UK is fifth on 7 %. Many of the newer accession countries, with the exception of the Czech Republic and Poland, make much less use of it.

So what is being asked for? FOI often targets particular areas. Traditionally these are either affairs of importance to a particular person (so for example, Veteran’s Affairs or Social Security are big topics) or areas of general interest such as finance. The Secretariat General is the primary focus of 11% of all requests with Competition second on 9 %. Justice is high up, third place on 8%; as is often the case, but both finance and trade (2%) and agriculture (3%) seem remarkably low on the list.

So why this difference from normal patterns? It may be that EU documents are of interest to particular groups. It may also be simply matter of publicity-few know it exists. There are also clearly difficulties over access and responsiveness, something Access Info Europe was very critical of earlier this year. Things may get more interesting with the arrival of the new website that helps people to make requests ‘Ask the EU’ later this year.

Was Wissen Sie?

FOI activists are being inspired by the UK mySociety site that allows you to publicly request information http://www.whatdotheyknow.com/. According to their blog the site is now responsible for an impressive 14.6 % of all requests to departments of state in the UK and appears to have upset Michael Gove.

A number of group have clubbed together to develop a German equivalent called ‘Ask the State’. It will be interesting to see how this develops given the ‘slow start’ to German FOI compared to the UK. One interesting feature is a device to help ensure journalistic scoops are kept private:

‘A special feature of the web portal designed for NGOs and journalists is that requests will not be made public immediately while a story is being pursued in order to ensure exclusivity’

Just to prevent any EU officials or politicians a smile of schadenfreude, it’s their turn next as ‘Access Info Europe is working with mySociety on development of a European Union level web portal, “Ask the EU”, to be launched on 28 September 2011, International Right to Know Day’. This would join already existing sites and initiatives such as the ‘wobbing’ site that encourages the use of Access to Information legislation across the EU.