Here is a swift corrective to anyone who drew the wrong conclusions from European Voice's online debate last week about the merits and uses of referendums. Visitors to this website voted by 55% to 45% to support a motion that “Referendums are not the right way to address the European Union's democratic deficit.” You can scroll back through the various arguments and discussion points here.
Now come back to political reality. Consider the results of an opinion poll conducted for the Financial Times by Harris Interactive among British voters. The FT's report is here, but behind a click-sensitive paywall, with registration required.
The announcement from David Cameron, the United Kingdom's prime minister, that he would offer a referendum on membership of the EU in the first half of the next parliament (ie, by the end of 2017) received strong support: 50% in favour; only 21% opposed. Which suggests, in case you thought otherwise, that European Voice's readership is not a reliable guide to the British electorate.
What the opinion poll also shows is the enormity of the task confronting anyone who wants to win a referendum in the UK on EU membership. Cameron says that he wants the UK to stay in, albeit on re-negotiated terms. The poll suggests that if a referendum were held tomorrow, 50% would vote to leave, while only 33% would vote to stay in and 17% would not vote either way.
Even more disturbingly for those wanting to keep the UK in the EU, the poll suggests that it would not make much difference to the chances of success in a referendum if the terms of membership were re-negotiated. Of those who said that they would vote against UK membership, only 12% said that “yes, definitely” they would change their mind in the event of a re-negotiation of terms. A sizeable 41% said that they would vote against membership regardless of the results of any re-negotiation.
So if Cameron does indeed – as he professes – want to keep the UK in the EU, he can see the mountain that he has to climb. There are some mountain climbers who, before they set out on an ascent, equip themselves for the task and work out their route beforehand. My suspicion is that Cameron's fondness for improvisation extends to his style of mountain-climbing. He is happy not to know what might be behind the next bend or over the next ridge. He has plotted his route to the next election and worked out that he needs to claim the referendum track as his own – to keep the UK Independence Party at bay and to discomfort the Labour Party. Beyond that, it is all an excellent adventure.
Tim has been editor of European Voice since 2009, having joined the staff as deputy editor in 2004. He has been reporting on EU issues since he came to Brussels in 1998. His greatest claim to fame in the eyes of some of his colleagues is that, growing up in north London, he used to have violin lessons with the artist now known as George Michael.
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