One afternoon, as I was strolling though Westminster, I was approached by a smartly-dressed young lady who was holding a clipboard. She explained they were collecting signatures for a petition to demand a UK referendum on membership of the European Union.
‘Do you think the UK should leave the European Union?’ she asked me.
‘No,’ I explained, ‘the EU is far from perfect but I think it is in our interests to stay in.’
She then politely thanked me and wandered off – no longer interested in my signing her petition. Presumably she thought I would not be interested in calling for a referendum – and in this she would be wrong.
Like most Liberal Democrats, I think the UK should be an active member of the European Union. The EU is a bureaucratic monster, a complete shambles, in dire need of cost-cutting reform – the Strasbourg building can go for a start – and we, the British, should be in there kicking backsides and rallying the members in sorting it all out.
However, I also believe we should have an immediate in-out referendum on UK membership of the European Union. Eurosceptics assume they have the monopoly on such a demand (a Facebook campaign for a referendum bombards me with anti-EU propaganda). But in this they are wrong.
There are many who would welcome a referendum and then to campaign to stay in. Paddy Ashdown, then Lib Dem leader, called for a referendum on the Maastrict treaty in 1992. Nick Clegg, at the time of Lisbon 2007, called for an in-out treaty. In both cases, the Conservative and Labour parties closed ranks to shout down such ideas. Presently Labour’s Keith Vaz is a prominent MP calling for a referendum – and defied his party whip to do so – even though he would support staying in.
There are many problems in today’s society where we need international co-operation – terrorism, organised crime, drugs and the environment are just some examples – no one state can effectively fight these issues on their own. And there are case in worker’s or minority rights where the EU has protected those that the state has let down.
It frustrates me to see the Eurosceptics leading the EU debate and that we are in but not in. Every time there is a new treaty or initiative we follow, we do not lead.
So why are pro-EUs calling for a referendum? My reasons are as follows.
1. The topic is far too important to be just another issue at general elections. During canvassing, hardly anyone referred to it with the main issues being prices, jobs and immigration. (The immigration issue is, of course, an EU effect despite impressive Tory slight-of-hand at the election).
2. There was a referendum in 1975 on the then-EEC – but this was 36 years ago, and Britain and Europe has changed much since then.
3. The domestic split weakens any British Prime Minister. Whereas Angela Merkel can carry the full weight of the German people, a British PM lacks this authority because of constant snipes amongst his own domestic front. A solid Yes vote from the British people would give the PM greater authority to battle for Britain’s share of the EU cake.
4. Once the Yes vote is carried, we can then get to the business in hand – we can all think of how we can make the EU better, less bureaucratic, more streamlined, and how it can work better for us. We can take the initiative instead of just following along.
5. A Yes campaign would make people more aware of the benefits the EU gives us. At the moment, the only information they get is from the newspaper media – hardly a balanced view. The EU is in desperate need of a good PR campaign.
6. If the vote is for No, then we give our two years' notice (as per Lisbon) and make preparations accordingly. This would be preferable to the ‘in-out-shake it all about’ situation we have the moment.
7. Whatever the result, it would be the end of UKIP. If we vote to stay in, then UKIP have lost the argument. If we vote to leave, then UKIP can say they have won, but then there is no point in carrying on.
Europe is a minor issue for the British people. Whereas other countries send their top people to the EU, we instead send rejected politicians and civil servants, and have a very low turnout in European parliament elections. How many people can name their MEPs? (The majority of whom have decided to exclude themselves from the centre of European policy).
People need to know that the EU has a great effect over their own lives. A national debate and a referendum will give them that knowledge – and further referendums over future treaties will increase that public participation.
So let’s back Britain, let’s back the EU, and let’s back a nationwide referendum.