Reflections on the EU referendum challenges to come

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By Dr Peter Lynch

I know we’ve just had an election but be prepared for more, much more. David Cameron seems set to fire the starting gun for the EU referendum in the Queen’s speech this week.

It means we will be in an intense political period of connected elections: the 2014 referendum, the 2015 general election, the 2016 Scottish election and then the European referendum. We don’t know the timing of the EU referendum and can’t rule out the possibility it could be held on the same day as the Scottish election, as happened with the AV voting system poll back in 2011.

David Cameron: Set the scene for an In/Out EU referendum
David Cameron: Set the scene for an In/Out EU referendum

The UK has had two decades of debate and division on the issue of EU membership but it has only ever had one referendum on the issue, way back in 1975. Times then were quite different and so was the EU and what it stood for. Moreover, we are set to see the EU referendum coming soon after the independence referendum and all the issues and alliances it generated.

Looking across Europe, we can find two major contemporary developments associated with the European Union and the poor economic climate since the Great Financial Crisis began. First, we have the rise of a Left concerned with austerity and EU’s role in austerity. We have seen the rise of citizen movements and parties – Syriza, the indigados and Podemos are just three examples.

Closer to home, look at Occupy, Radical independence and the Scottish Left Project. But, we have also seen the rise of a Right concerned with austerity and immigration, with the growth of UKIP as well as far right parties from Denmark to France and Hungary. Each of these developments will coincide come the UK’s EU referendum and some of it is deeply unattractive.

The EU referendum also creates challenges for just about every political party and movement in Scotland. Let’s be honest, there are things to like about the EU but lots of things to dislike too – especially since 2008. The free market is good for business, not necessarily for trade unions or workers. Free movement of people is good for some EU citizens like scientists and academics but ask the young and low-paid in some parts of Scotland and you might get a different response. If we were ever happy-clappy about the EU – even in Scotland – I’m pretty sure we are less enthusiastic now.

Here’s four different ways of thinking about what the EU referendum will mean for parties, movements and citizens in Scotland.

First, the UK government is run by the Conservatives. Though this party is divided on EU membership from top to bottom, it will be the one that negotiates what IT wants from the EU and put that to the referendum. So, we’re going to be asked to vote on a European Union we might not like and a renegotiation package we might not like either.

However, the question here for parties, movements, even the Scottish Government is  – what do you want to get from the EU? What policies do you want implemented, what claims do you wish to make, what demands do you want to get across? Rather than sit passively allowing the UK government make the running, there is an opportunity for citizen engagement here through the Scottish government or civic institutions. Let’s make our voice heard regardless of what the Tories negotiate. And make sure the Scottish government argues for a role in the renegotiations too. Let’s see if David Cameron let’s Scotland have a say or wants to stick us back in the box.

Barroso: the SNP's friend
Barroso: the SNP’s friend

Second, if you were a Yes supporter, the idea of the European Union was a helpful one but the reality turned out to be rather different in 2014. Leading EU figures decided to place obstacles in the way of Scottish independence – effectively forcing EU citizens out of the EU. How exactly this fitted with the EU treaties I’m not quite sure. But EU leaders like Jose Manuel Barroso ruled out internal enlargement and were determined to make Scotland apply as a new member state from the outside.

This is what the EU did – they lined up with the No campaign – and now they want us to vote for them. Really? How many of you are willing to line up behind the EU project and just nod through what they want after 2014? Not many I’d imagine, but the Euroref does give us an opportunity to get some things across to them and exact a little revenge. Let’s make them work for our support.

Third, if you are a Green or on the broad left, there’s a lot to dislike about the EU. Sure enough, there are policies that are positive, but the EU is seen as a centralized institution – a remote bureaucracy that has implemented serious austerity measures across Eurozone member states. Businesses have benefited and been protected to some extent, whilst the poor and the young have suffered.

Eurozone austerity has effectively wrecked the lives of hundreds of thousands of young people – a different version of this has certainly occurred in the UK since 2010 – and now we’re going to get EU leaders lining up to tell us we should vote Yes to EU membership because it’s in our economic interests? I can see problems with that argument.

Finally, where are the public in all of us? Where are citizens and civic groups in Scotland? Remember how galvanized the public were during the long independence referendum campaign?

We saw a huge turnout, new levels of engagement in politics, the role of 16 and 17 year olds and the emergence of new social movements like National Collective, Radical Independence and Women for Independence. Euroref is more likely to be dominated by businesses and the elites telling us how ‘our interests’ necessitate voting Yes, run through the media and billboard advertising – with no grassroots involvement whatsoever.

Let’s see how well that goes down with the public in the current political climate. I don’t see the EU leaders canvassing in Scotland’s housing estates to get a Yes vote like so many people did last year.

Dr Peter Lynch is a senior lecturer in Politics at the University of Stirling.