The case for an EU referendum

Christopher Bickerton, lecturer in Politics at the University of Cambridge, discusses how how the impending EU referendum in the UK necessitates open and unbiased academic debate, and how British discussions of EU reform may reverberate across the European continent.

When the results of the British election were known, those studying the EU may have allowed themselves a quiet and discrete fist pump. David Cameron and the Conservative Party have made such firm assurances about organizing a referendum on EU membership that to renege on this promise is almost unimaginable. A referendum will take place, putting the EU at the heart of British political debate at least for the next couple of years and providing plenty of opportunities for the entrepreneurial EU studies researcher.

More generally though, responses to the forthcoming referendum have revealed some of the biases that exist amongst those studying the EU. Unsurprisingly, as with many other fields of inquiry, those who study the EU tend often to think it is a rather good thing. A referendum on British membership has therefore been perceived as an unwelcome event, more a threat than an opportunity. Attitudes range from the fearful to the reluctant.

In fact, there are lots of reasons why we should welcome a referendum on UK membership. Of the many questions facing contemporary Western democracies, the one about what freedom elected governments have to reshape their own state and society is perhaps the most important. Political authority was once theorized as a vertical relationship between citizens and the state. Today we think in terms of complex governance arrangements where authority is generated not only vertically but also horizontally through participation in regional and global governance networks. Unsurprisingly, these theories have coincided with great scepticism about what national politicians can achieve. A referendum on UK membership will be an opportunity to properly debate this point. Would an exit from the EU rescue British democracy from the clutches of the powerful Brussels elite? Or are the problems British democracy faces far less to do with the EU than many of its critics think?

It is also true that public debates on the EU in the UK have tended towards caricature. Debates are structured around the atavistic nationalist who rallies against the EU and immigrants in the same breath, and the far-sighted cosmopolitan who thinks the case for EU membership as so self-evident that one hardly needs to make the argument for it. Rabid opposition meets a snooty sense of superiority. We see evidence of this snootiness in the way some have started to approach the referendum issue, making it about the need to ‘properly educate’ voters. The implication is that anyone who is ‘educated’ will be in favour of remaining within the EU and that ‘Brexit’ will occur only as a result of misinformation and media manipulation of ‘the facts’.

At the very least, a referendum should make it possible to overcome some of these prejudices. Is UKIP really the only representative of those in favour of ‘Brexit’? One only needs to remember that back in 1975 many on the Left were against EC membership whilst a great many on the Right were in favour. Today, whilst the opposite may appear to be the case it is also more complicated. That positions can change so much over time suggests there is more to the issue than just a struggle between ignorance and enlightenment.

A final reason is that referenda have traditionally been something that Europe’s elites have avoided at all costs. The legacy of the French and Dutch ‘No’ votes has been a wariness of consulting domestic publics on issues of European reform. Treaty change is unpopular in many European capitals because domestic ratification would often require a public consultation. Rather than treat the UK referendum as a peculiarly British concern, there is an opportunity for it to be a lightening rod for a pan-European debate about the current state of the EU. Might the arguments made in the UK not also have echoes elsewhere across Europe? There will be a temptation on the part of governments in other EU member states to present the British vote as an exotic and uniquely British affair, unrelated to the concerns of the rest of the EU. We should resist this temptation and make the British referendum an opportunity for a wider debate amongst European publics about how we wish to be governed in Europe today.


Dr Christopher Bickerton is Lecturer in Politics at the University of Cambridge and Fellow of Queens’ College, Cambridge.

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