Early Steps on the Long Road to the Brexit Referendum

Swee Leng Harris and Justine Stefanelli, Research Fellows in Law at the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law, take a look at the diverging attitudes within the Conservative Party towards EU membership and reform, and how some of these are directly at odds with those of party leader and Prime Minister, David Cameron. How might this lack of internal agreement impact on the Conservative Party both domestically in the referendum campaign, and internationally when negotiating with other EU member states?

Political parties in the UK, and the different interests within those parties, are starting to clarify their positions for the in-out EU referendum, and the arguments that will be ubiquitous throughout the upcoming campaign are beginning to materialize. This is especially important for parliamentarians who will need to align themselves with differing and specific positions. Among the first viewpoints to emerge are those from three Conservative MPs who put their views forward in a publication for Politeia entitled ‘Britain and the EU: What Must Change?’. Speaking at a launch event on 18 June 2015, Bernard Jenkin, the Rt Hon John Redwood and Sir Bill Cash called for fundamental changes to the UK’s relationship with the EU. The one hour launch event organised by Politeia and held in the Houses of Parliament was attended by politicians, Westminster insiders, journalists and civil society. The three authors each spoke in some detail, advocating for the need for fundamental changes as set out in the publication, followed by a brief period for questions from the audience.

Calls from within the Conservative Party for Fundamental Change

Taking as their starting point statements made by Cameron himself, particularly in his Bloomberg speech in 2013, the speakers endorsed the need for the fundamental changes that have been set out by Cameron and the Conservative party. In that speech, Cameron set forth five principles for a European Union ‘fit for the 21st century’, including greater flexibility to better accommodate the legal and political diversity of member states, increased democratic accountability, and a more even balance of competences that would allow for the possibility of returning some powers to member states. Since winning the election, however, Cameron has yet to set out a comprehensive list of demands for EU reform. According to a recent article in the Guardian, he seems to be focusing instead on specific issues such as immigration and benefits for EU migrants and greater protection for non-Eurozone countries.

Jenkin, Redwood and Cash took the view that the provisions in the Treaty of Lisbon will inevitably lead to a continued EU ‘encroachment’ on UK domestic matters and foreign policy. Certain fundamental changes were therefore necessary. Their demands for such fundamental changes focused on two issues in particular: and secondly, that the UK should once again have full control over foreign policy, including the power to make trade deals. These ideas were further endorsed by Steve Baker MP who runs the new initiative Conservatives for Britain.

To Exit from Ever Closer Union, Restore UK Democracy, or Save Europe from Itself?

All three presentations at the launch revealed subtle differences between the Conservative Party speakers’ views that may yet prove significant as events unfold and the referendum draws closer.

Bernard Jenkin seemed to hold that the kind of fundamental changes needed were not possible under current treaty arrangements, and that the only way to achieve the fundamental changes required was to exit the EU. To him, the topics and issues currently earmarked for negotiation such as the rights of European migrant workers do not go far enough and were mere tinkering around the edges.

John Redwood, by contrast, stated that he hoped to avert Britain’s exit from the EU by influencing the government to seek the kind of fundamental changes needed in its negotiations with the EU. He appealed to the principle of parliamentary sovereignty as the philosophical justification for the fundamental changes demanded:

  1. In entering into the various EU treaties, he elaborated, past governments had transferred powers from the UK Parliament to the EU.
  2. This transfer of powers had undermined UK parliamentary sovereignty, which in the UK derives its legitimacy from democratic accountability.
  3. This situation, Redwood concluded, needed to be rectified by the Conservative government in accordance with its mandate following the election.

On these grounds, the fundamental changes previously called for by Cameron were necessary for the ‘restoration of UK democracy’.

Bill Cash in turn reasoned that the UK needed to ‘save Europe from itself’. He emphasised what he viewed as the evident failure of the EU in light of the Greek debt crisis and protests over Europe in other countries. Cash also suggested that many member states wanted change in the EU, but were prevented from effecting it by their constitutions—which, in his view, lacked the flexibility of the UK’s constitution. According to Cash, the UK has saved Europe twice in the last century through the two World Wars, and it was time for the UK to undertake this challenge once again.

Resolution and Reality: The Road Ahead

If this early snapshot of where people will stand come the referendum is any indication, there is not only a diversity of views across political parties, but there is also diversity within parties among those who share a belief in the need for radical change to the relationship between the UK and the EU—whether with a UK within or without the EU. While Redwood emphasised the need for somewhat radical reform through these fundamental changes, Jenkin seemed to regard exit as inevitable, and Cash was convinced of the EU’s disastrous future. Clearly some compromises will be necessary in order to present a united front during negotiations with the EU, as Cameron is no doubt well aware that a unified position will appear most strong to the other EU member states and make it more feasible for the UK to successfully argue for change in the EU.  This is especially important in light of the fact that several of the issues potentially on the negotiating table will require amendment to the Treaty of Lisbon. This would require unanimous agreement among the member states, something for which there does not seem to be much appetite at present.


Swee Leng Harris and Justine Stefanelli are Research Fellows from the Bingham Centre for the Rule of Law.


Note: The views expressed in this post are those of the author, and not of the UCL European Institute, nor of UCL.

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