To negotiate with the EU first and then have a referendum makes no sense

The idea that the UK government could negotiate with the EU on repatriating certain powers back to the UK first, and then hold a referendum to endorse the deal, makes no sense. And I mean that logically as much as politically or tactically.

Imagine the following scenario. The coalition government does seize the opportunity presented by the Eurozone countries seeking greater fiscal integration to negotiate a repatriation of powers, a scenario described by the Tory MP Peter Lilley on Radio Four this morning. This is in itself an unlikely scenario, as the Lib Dems and Labour would probably be opposed to it, and how bothered are the Eurozone countries going to be to engage in complicated negotiations with a UK whose ambivalence towards European integration they are fed up with, at the very point when they themselves are trying to work out how to integrate even more?

But setting realism aside, let’s just suppose the government come back from Brussels with a deal, and they present it to the UK electorate in a referendum. What will inevitably happen is that many of those who are in favour of the UK withdrawing from the EU altogether will oppose the deal, because it doesn’t go far enough; and many of those who support greater European integration will also oppose it, because it goes too far, particularly if it involves exempting the UK from some of the EU regulations relating to worker’s rights and employment conditions. So the deal could well be rejected by the voters. Is the government seriously going to conduct difficult negotiations of this sort, at the risk of worsening the UK’s relationships with its key European partners, only for it to be rejected by the UK people? Even supposing the government did carry out these negotiations, the most likely scenario would then be that it would not offer the UK people a referendum on it, arguing that this policy was in the Tories’ manifesto in any case.

So a no vote in a referendum on a renegotiated relationship with the EU would be deeply humiliating and damaging to the government; and as it had been brought about by an unholy alliance of eurosceptics and europhiles, there would then have to be an in / out referendum to settle the matter altogether. But equally, a yes vote in such a referendum would also not resolve the question of whether we stay in or out of the EU, as some in the eurosceptic camp would argue the renegotiated relationship had only been supported because it was the least EU-friendly deal on offer, while some europhiles might also support it as a means to preserve the UK’s membership of the EU, fearing that a no vote would trigger the in / out referendum they have tried to avoid.

So let’s sum up:

  1. First, it’s highly unlikely that the government would succeed in negotiating a repatriation of powers given the constraints of the coalition and the priorities of the Eurozone countries
  2. Second, it’s extremely unlikely that the government would run the risk of a deal being rejected by the UK public in a referendum
  3. Any result in such a referendum would be inconclusive, as the repatriation of powers could be both supported and opposed by eurosceptics and europhiles alike.

It makes far more sense – politically, tactically and logically – to offer the people of the UK a referendum such as the one that will be proposed in the House of Commons on Monday, containing three options: the UK leaves the EU altogether; repatriation of some powers; sticking to the present arrangements. Such a referendum would give the government a clear mandate, and ought to settle the matter once and for all.

What happens if there is not a straight majority in favour of any of these options? Well, perhaps the referendum could use the Alternative Vote system, with it being mandatory for voters to list a preference from 1 to 3 for all three options. I’m sure people would find this was a far more satisfactory way of doing things than First Past the Post, in this instance at least!

English parliament