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Farage’s 2015 referendum demand could weaken Brexit’s cause

Jonathan Lindsell, 17 March 2015

‘I want a full and fair referendum to be held in 2015 to allow Britons to vote on being in or out of the European Union.’

This, Nigel Farage notes, would be Ukip’s price for a confidence and supply agreement to support a Conservative government after May’s election.

Farage’s gambit suggests either the same politicking for which he excoriates the establishment, or a poor appreciation of tactics. Farage could be choking the cause his party exists to effect.

There would be no time to haggle for a coalition after May 8, draft and pass an EU referendum bill, then have a proper national debate on such a complicated and important issue, all before this Christmas. Ukip trumpets the will of the British people, yet wants them to make a decision as a hat drops. Given that the EU influences UK trade policy, migration policy, and a large proportion of law, and has for 40 years, exit is a complicated question that deserves widespread discussion.

Farage further contributes to these time constraints by raising other complications before a referendum bill could be passed – campaign spending limits, an ombudsman to ‘police [media] coverage’, and wording the electoral commission could never sanction: ‘Do you wish to be a free, independent sovereign democracy?’

Discussion of the precise wording of an EU referendum question, and who could vote on it, was used to filibuster the last private member’s bill that sought to introduce an EU vote. The electoral commission itself suggested ‘Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?’

If a 2015 question was put, the Scotland effect could come to bear on Euroscepticism. There is not yet agreement on a model for Brexit among Eurosceptic groups, let alone a detailed white paper like that produced by the Scottish National Party ten months before the vote. Alex Salmond suffered in the television debates with Alastair Darling because he was unable to explain with full confidence how the SNP’s vision would be realised. Salmond’s prosed EU entry was, indeed, a point of contention. Some of Farage’s post-exit visions may be overoptimistic, as any single Eastern EU state could veto a UK-EU trade deal if they are unsatisfied with the migration settlement.

I criticised David Cameron’s suggestion that we could have a referendum in 2016. While referendum and exit are certainly possible for the public to support and conduct stably, having a shotgun vote in 2015 would give the markets and international community an impression of chaos, especially with uncertain elections this year in Spain and Denmark.

Implicitly the Cameron renegotiation tactic would be abandoned. This could be a mistake, since reforms Cameron got within the EU would apply to the ‘Norway option’ for exit too. In addition, attempting to lead EU-wide reform and being demonstrably frustrated would lend justification to an eventual exit. By proposing something so impractical, Farage makes an alliance with Cameron less likely, hurting a referendum’s viability.

3 comments on “Farage’s 2015 referendum demand could weaken Brexit’s cause”

  1. The shorter the time that the Europhile British political elite have to fix the vote the more chance there is of either a YES vote for leaving. The events of the 1975 referendum show the dangers for the Out of the EU side of a long time between the decision to have a referendum and the referendum being held.

    All the objections Mr Lindsell raises are inconsequential.Campaign spending limits and an ombudsman to ‘police [media] coverage’ could be decided in a week or two if the will is there. As for the wording of the question, the desire to have ‘Do you wish to be a free, independent sovereign democracy?’ should be seen as a bargaining position not something set in stone. Again, if the will is there the Electoral Commission could come up with alternative wordings quickly. It is worth remembering that the referendum on the United Kingdom Alternative Vote referendum, took place in May 2011, just a year after the 2010 Election.

    As for Cameron’s negotiation with the EU, this policy is transparently bogus because no serious change to matters such as the free movement of labour can be made without another Treaty because they would require the amendment of existing treaties. Even assuming that the other 27 member states would be willing to agree such changes, two – France and the Republic of Ireland – have to hold referenda to agree the change. Whether either referendum would produce a YES to the changes is dubious at best.

    Changes to the movement of Labour – which would be a central part of Cameron’s “renegotiation” – would be particularly difficult to get past the other 27 EU member states because so many of them are dumping huge numbers of their unemployed onto Britain.

    1. Yes, they all ‘could’ be decided in a week or two, but they are all objects that would require considerable discussion and given how fractious the next parliament is going to be, the chances of such debates being strung out are high.

      Yes, the AV vote was achieved quickly – but within 12 months, not 7. And the AV vote was on a single distinct proposal. The EU is far more complicated and covers more issues.

      1. The matter at issue – shall the UK leave the EU – is not complicated, Mr Lindsell. It is beautifully simple.The aftermath of a vote to leave would be administratively complex but the referendum itself is simple.

        As for the AV referendum versus an IN/OUT EU one, a difference of five months is neither here nor there. If the political will is there it can be readily accomplished.

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