Thursday, 7 May 2015

Why there has to be an EU referendum

The exit polls are in. Whatever arguments there are against another Tory government, their offer of a referendum on UK membership of the EU is not one of them. Here's why I think we need that referendum.

We get to vote for representatives in the European parliament, and therefore have a say in the European laws that our country must follow. Is this enough? No – accountability and participation are not enough. Government of any sort must be made legitimate by consent to be governed in the first place – we can't have an unwanted government structure imposed on us, and then reasonably say it is legitimized because we get to say which party gets to form that unwanted government. 

It seems to me that many EU supporters conceive EU government as legitimized by the moral authority of the European mission (togetherness, solidarity, peace) and by its necessity (if we don't do it, we will lapse back into conflict). But I fail to see that these outweigh the fundamental legitimacy of government by consent – and moreover in politics is any moral mission, or any claimed necessity, valid unless also backed by popular agreement?

It is unclear at the moment that, in Britain at least, the EU definitely has popular consent to govern – a considerable number of people seem to think that it doesn't. This lack of clarity affects our political discourse – Europe is so controversial, so undecided, that two of our major parties cannot discuss it without threatening their unity. This is bad – we need united parties to carry out the manifestos that parties are elected on. Doubly bad – it cannot be acceptable that major political parties are unable to discuss a matter of great constitutional importance. 

So the country needs to work out if Europe has consent to govern, and the deadlock between and within the political parties needs to be resolved. If our representatives cannot reach any consensus, the question must be referred to the nation in a referendum. Any PM advocating continued EU membership who backed by a mandate from the majority of the population could face down any anti-EU dissent.

The main argument against a referendum is, as far as I can see, is that the populace might make the wrong choice. This is no argument at all. If we fear or don't like the prospect of convincing the electorate of the best course of action, then let's not bother with democratic politics. We can't have the current level of EU involvement in UK life without a referendum legitimizing it. But we can have it if we can convince the populace that this is the right course of action for the country. If we think EU membership is the best thing for the UK, let's back ourselves and convince the country to vote that way in a referendum.

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