Monday will witness a showdown in the UK Parliament over a motion calling for a referendum on the UK’s EU membership. According to the motion, a public vote should be called with three options: stay in, withdraw or stay in but renegotiate the terms. The motion has triggered a flurry of MP maneuvering and comment (see here, here, here, here and here for example) With the raging eurozone crisis as a backdrop, the feeling is that the UK government's strategy - to freeze the issue of 'Europe' during this parliament - is being overtaken by events and public opinion.
Potentially 67 Tory MPs could vote against the Government, according to most recent reports, alongside a handful Labour and DUP MPs. Two alternative amendments have been tabled, one by George Eustice MP calling for a referendum on the EU but only after a successful renegotiation of powers. His amendment also calls for the Government to publish a White Paper in the 2012-13 session of Parliament on what EU powers the Government would seek to repatriate from Brussels.
Earlier today, Cameron indicated that the government will not support either the motion or the Eustice amendment. MPs will be on a three-line whip to vote against the motion, but it remains unclear whether Cameron will whip MPs to vote against the Eustice amendment - though chances are he will whip against it, given that even the 'compromise' amendment is still unacceptable to the Lib Dems.
In the Times, Dominic Raab MP argues,
"The executive should have the magnanimity to allow the legislature its say…There will always be different shades of opinion in a democratic party: on the extent of repatriation; whether a referendum should be held in the short or longer term; or whether we should withdraw altogether. But the political weather has changed – at home and abroad. The Government would do better to have this rising headwind to its back than its front.”George Eustice added that:
"I think the government has handled it very, very badly and have escalated this into a conflict that was entirely unnecessary."
It's hard to disagree. Irrespective of what one thinks about a referendum on EU membership, why not allow a free vote?
We have a whole lot to say about the arguments for and against a referendum, but a couple of brief points:
It's clear that the public is becoming increasingly restless with the current EU-UK relationship, although this is not confined to the UK, witness the growing frustration with EU's elite's disregard for national democracy (the No votes in the Netherlands, France and Ireland, the bailouts etc) and the remoteness of EU institutions all across Europe. It is therefore hard not to have some sympathy for people who feel that a referendum on Europe is long overdue.
At the same time the outcome of an in-out referendum, if it was held today, could well generate a 'stay in' vote, due to the uncertainty that would be triggered by a No vote (fuelled by the fragile economic situation - we could see echoes of the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty). As Peter Oborne noted at a recent Open Europe event, an in-out referendum would unite the media establishment, a large part of the business community (think 'rules of origin' and potential trade tariffs), the Lib Dems, most of Labour, but would split the Conservatives right down the middle. The risk is that a Yes vote also would kill the question of EU reform for a very long time - leaving the current, sub-optimal structure in place for far longer than need be.
In any case, an 'out' vote would not settle the question of the UK's future in Europe as it would trigger a hugely complex round of negotiations with other EU countries in order to establish a new relationship. And here's the thing, at the moment, there are no credible alternatives to membership. In or out of the customs union? How to avoid trade disruptions? How to secure market access across Europe for the City? etc etc. For example, replicating the European Economic Area, a la Norway and Iceland, would be pretty disastrous, given that it would still subject the UK to Single Market regulation, but without giving Britain a voice at the table when these laws are forged (although at least Norway gets autonomy over fishing - a key industry - and agriculture in return). A series of Swiss-style bilateral agreement seems like a more credible option, but again, that will involve a hugely cumbersome and unpredictable negotiation process.
But regardless of these arguments, surely MPs should be free to weigh up the pros and cons for themselves and make up their own minds? By coming down so hard on MPs over this vote, Cameron risks re-creating the very same 1990s-style tensions over Europe that the leadership has tried so hard to avoid.
The whole point of the first-past-the post electoral system is to give MPs some autonomy from the party leadership in order to be able to better represent their constituents' interests and respond to their concerns, rather than to always follow the party line. In contrast, under proportional representation, the decision making process within parties is very centralised, as the party leadership has the power to de-select MPs from the party list at the next election.
The Tories made a principled stand on keeping first-past-the post during the recent AV referendum, arguing that one of its key advantages over proportional systems was to empower backbench MPs vis-a-vis the executive. It seems somewhat hypocritical then that they are now maintaining a similar system of rigid, centralised party leadership diktat via the three line whip that would not be out of place in any PR system.