The first Duke of Wellington: one of history's less-respected pundits

Mandelson—the new Duke of Wellington

He’s wrong. We need a referendum
June 17, 2015

The Duke of Wellington once claimed that the British constitution was incapable of improvement. Writing in Prospect, Peter Mandelson (“What Cameron knows about Europe,”) does not see any faults of any kind in the European Union and is totally opposed to any attempt by Britain to try and improve the terms of its relationship with it.

Not many people, even those who support our membership, would take such a complacent view.  The EU is not cost free, either financially or in terms of the regulatory burden. The financial services industry, for instance, is the subject of harmful and unsympathetic regulation. Despite concerted attempts to chill people’s blood at the prospect of the EU referendum, there are plenty of people in the business community who support the aim of negotiating to improve the terms of our membership.

Mandelson claims that people are not interested in the issue of Europe. He ignores the fact that four million people voted in the election for a party that advocates exit from the EU without attempted reform. There must have been many others who voted for the Conservative Party’s pledge to renegotiate the terms of our membership and then put the results to an in/out referendum.

People might not often cite Europe as an issue of concern, but many are certainly concerned about some of the EU’s effects, such as the drain on our public finances (our contribution to the EU budget this year is forecast to be £14bn), the effect on immigration, the distortion of food prices through the Common Agricultural Policy and the impact on our energy policy, to name just some examples.

One strong reason for a referendum is that the nature of the EU has changed profoundly since the last referendum in 1975. At that time, the European relationship was seen almost exclusively as one about trade.  Today, the EU is integrating across a whole series of areas where the motive is nothing to do with trade but about creating a new, “harmonised” political entity.

Mandelson complains about “the danger” of a referendum. Of course, many people wouldn’t want a referendum now if the Labour government that he supported had honoured its promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (the repackaged EU Constitution), which brought about another great leap in political integration. The public feels cheated, and rightly so.

But he inadvertently puts his finger on the reasons why the renegotiation of British membership is unavoidable and essential.  As he says, the eurozone is taking more integration measures to shore up the euro. The eurozone group of countries constitutes a qualified majority within the EU voting system, and as it forms a more united bloc it will dictate the direction of the EU as a whole, potentially imposing measures on Britain. We must remember that most EU member states not presently in the eurozone are under a treaty obligation to move towards joining the single currency. It is, therefore, necessary to put in place safeguards that will allow Britain to protect itself against legislation that harms our national interest.

In contrast, Mandelson clearly implies that we are missing out by not being part of “core Europe,” that is the single currency. Well, at least he has been consistent in his view over the years that we must join the euro. The small matter of a possible uncontrolled exit of one of its members (Greece), and the dangerous imbalances in the broader eurozone that have been exposed in recent years, have clearly not tempered his enthusiasm. Full federation it is! Whatever the European issue, it is always the same essential argument: you must join in order to achieve influence, even if you don’t like the look of where the project is heading and you surrender your self-determination in the process.  That approach makes no sense whatsoever.

Lastly, he warns that there is a body of opinion, including Jacques Delors and Guy Verhofstadt (a liberal MEP and former Belgian Prime Minister, in case you were wondering), who are arguing for two-tier EU membership, “full and associate.” The latter, he says, would give us “negotiated access to Europe’s internal trade” but exclude us from “full” representation at EU level. I have not pored over the latest musings of Delors and Verhofstadt, but a relationship that provides access to the EU single market while extracting Britain from EU control of many policy areas would cause many people to say: “Bring it on.”

In some important respects Britain is already not a “full” member of the EU. We are not in the eurozone and we have opt outs in areas including the Schengen border-free area and parts of justice and home affairs. Perhaps it is not so much a question of whether we are in or out as to what precisely our relationship with the EU is.

Mandelson may share Wellington’s  approach and believe that improvement in our relationship with the EU is impossible. Others will believe there is room for improvement and will be prepared to wait for the results of the Prime Minister’s renegotiation before making up their minds.