Britain’s EU referendum: the pre-referendum campaign, so far

blank pageThe debate on European issues in the UK has certainly gained momentum since the outcome of the 7 May general election made it a racing certainty that there would be an ‘in/out’ referendum before the end of 2017, most likely on a date still to be determined in 2016.  David Hannay, member of the House of Lords and former Ambassador to the EU, reviews the pre-referendum campaign so far.

Some of the main battle-lines have already become discernible.  But so far the debate is no more than that; it falls far short of the sort of all-out campaign which can be expected before the vote.

Why is that? Well, first there are a number of technical, electoral law considerations relating to finance and other matters which discourage any premature formal campaign activity; and in any case neither side of the argument has yet settled on the shape and composition of the main campaigning organisations. More significantly neither of the two main political parties, Conservative and Labour, have yet decided how they are going to campaign. That both these parties will be to some extent split when a real campaign does start is not seriously in doubt, and it is already possible to make an informed guess as to who will be campaigning for a ‘yes’ to remaining in the EU and who for a ‘no’. But on the Conservative side much will depend on the negotiations in Brussels which the government has engaged and whose outcome will only be known at the end of this year at the very earliest, probably rather later. And on the Labour side everything, this issue included, is shrouded in the fog of battle which surrounds the leadership succession. Of the smaller parties there is no doubt how the Scottish National Party, the Liberal Democrats and the UK Independence Party will line up; but in Northern Ireland the implications for the Good Friday agreement of Britain finding itself outside the European Union could produce a rather difference approach than was the case in 1975.

So far Conservative eurosceptics have been the noisiest element in the debate as they voice their fears that the government will end up opting for a ‘yes’ and as they try to manoeuvre the Prime Minister into setting out a laundry list of politically unnegotiable demands and establish a growing set of red lines. UKIP have seemed more interested in staking out a leadership role for themselves and their leader in the ‘no’ campaign. Unlike in 1975 non-British voices, in particular that of the President of the United States and including the leaders of pretty well all the other EU Member States, have spoken up in support of Britain remaining in. This overseas element in the debate is likely to become even more prominent as the moment of decision approaches; how, or indeed whether, it will influence the voters remains unknown.

Of the main issues aired so far in the debate the question of the alternatives to membership has probably been the most prominent. Disagreement among the sceptics of which option to favour and the probable unnegotiability and unattractiveness of most of them has been revealed. But many other issues remain for the moment submerged. For instance none of the opponents of membership has yet set out what kind of agricultural or regional policy they would support; or how they would secure repatriation of fisheries policy with the maintenance of the historic rights for a number of continental European countries in our waters which pre-exist our membership. Most oddly of all it seems to be assumed that any negotiations favouring a ‘no’ vote would be simple, straightforward and conducted in an atmosphere of friendly cooperation, when it is far more likely that, as with most divorce settlements, they would be difficult, lengthy and acrimonious.

And then there are the ‘events, dear boy, events’ of Harold Macmillan, which remain for the most part unknown. Two have already surfaced, the Greek bail-out and the crisis over immigration by both asylum seekers and illegal economic migrants. Neither of these issues are in fact very relevant to Britain’s membership since, as a non-member of the Eurozone the impact of the Greek events on the UK will be much the same whether we are in the EU or outside it, and our non-membership of Schengen and the right to opt-out of the EU’s Justice and Home Affairs legislation, mean that, at least theoretically, we remain in full control of migration policy from outside the EU. But that has not stopped those issues being drawn in to the debate. How, if at all, they will affect the vote remains to be seen. More relevant perhaps remains the handling of a more threatening and assertive Russia where EU solidarity and actions will be crucially important; but none yet seems to be paying a lot of attention to that nor to the lessons we shall be drawing from the centenary of the events of 1974 when it comes to ensuring our future security and prosperity.

If any preliminary conclusion can be drawn from the pre-campaigns so far, it would be that there is still a long way to go, and that one should not be sucked into complacency by the improvement in support for Britain’s EU membership in some of the opinion polls. This far ahead of the 1975 vote there was a clear majority in the opinion polls for leaving but the electorate voted by 2:1 to stay in.


Lord Hannay of Chiswick is a member of the House of Lords and is former Ambassador to the UN and the EU.


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


This article was originally published on British Influence.

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