The referendum paradox

The UK’s EU referendum is upon us, and the media are manic about it.  The timing is uncertain, the EU reform programme advocated by the government imprecise, the reaction by the other governments diverse, and the position of the government and the conservative party towards Brexit in flux.  One constant theme is whether the founding treaties will need to be revised.  However, there is in this respect an enormous referendum paradox, which is hardly ever noted.

Cameron’s position is that the EU needs to be reformed.  If such reform happens, he will advocate continued membership.  In this respect he has been enormously successful.  In the UK there is near universal recognition that reform is indeed needed.  Given that the EU founding treaties are so prolific and detailed, on questions of principle, policy and governance, fundamental reform is difficult to conceive of in the absence of changes to these treaties.

It is here that the referendum paradox kicks in.  It is precisely because serious treaty revisions require referenda in many EU member states that most governments are opposed to reopening this pandora’s box.  This generalised referendum practice – in some countries constitutionally required, in others politically indispensable – is a result of the failed EU constitution-making process (2003-5).  Blair also promised a referendum on the EU constitution, but was saved by the negative votes in France and the Netherlands.  Avoiding referenda in all EU states but Ireland for the approval of the subsequent Lisbon Treaty (2007-9) was a veritable tour de force, which strongly contributed to conservative party clamouring for a referendum – at the time in opposition of course.  This tour de force cannot easily be repeated.

So the paradox is to require EU reform, which really demands treaty amendments, followed by a UK referendum – whereas other governments are dead against having to organise their own EU referenda. To make the paradox much sharper Cameron has tied himself to the 2017 deadline.  It is simply impossible for the treaties to be revised (a process subject to a fairly complex procedure in various phases), and for other, non-UK referenda to take place by the end of 2017.  So let us assume that the treaties are indeed revised, and that this leads not just to a UK referendum, but also to referenda in other member states.  The UK public will then have to cast their vote on EU reform which may very well still falter at the next referendum hurdle – in Ireland, or in Spain, or, who knows, in Greece …

The conclusion can only be that it is a particular political performance to have linked these three elements: a referendum on membership, the issue of EU reform, and a 2017 deadline.

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