Do you like vowels?

Samuel Jackson in Pulp Fiction
Vowels, m%!^&@%^&? Do you like them?

It’s a pretty simple question. Vowels. AEIOU. Sometimes Y. Are you pro or anti? Don’t give me that elitist claptrap about “it depends”, or “I haven’t really thought about it”. Yes or no. Now.

Yes, we’re talking EU referendums again – the policy equivalent of “do you like vowels”.

The relentlessly shifting Overton window has now created an assumption that there will be a referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU soon, and David Cameron is wondering what to do about it in his 2015 manifesto.

Let’s agree that there are some questions on which referendums can work (even if you don’t like them much). The Swiss model where legislation can be overturned creates a simple yes/no question. A public vote on a highly specific proposal such as whether to build a particular building. Californian ballot initiatives, maybe.

They may have bad outcomes, they may be cynically-deployed tools of the powerful, but those are at least simple single questions.

For some reason, though, we have got ourselves into a scrap about whether to have a referendum on probably the most complex issue in public policy, the UK’s relationship with the EU.

Even the briefest article about the proposed referendum disappears into conceptual fog in a few sentences. Is the referendum before a (hypothetical and probably mythical) “renegotiation”? Is it “in or out”? Is “in” on the basis of the renegotation or without it? What does “out” mean anyway – EEA or WTO? Would the UK want to participate in a (hypothetical and probably mythical) “democratic EU federation”?

What’s worse, there is a whole sub-debate on what configuration of questions would lead to which result. You can be pretty sure that meaningful debate is not on the agenda if the way you ask the question determines the answer.

Any honest taking of public views on Europe would need a ballot paper the size of a billboard poster, and an information booklet the size of a phone book. At issue are not only the minority-sport questions about whether the UK should enter the Euro, but the fundamental ones of whether it should be part of any attempt at closer union, what level of disengagement is acceptable, how to manage the rights of Britons living abroad and what sorts of powers we believe are properly exercised at the European level. This, by the way, in the country that’s least knowledgable about EU institutions of any member state.

There are a few people for whom the answer is simple – cut every tie, leave every EU institution, and go it alone – but even at these times of Eurocrisis they are a minority voice. The real policy issues are concealed, in both parties, either by a policy of “heads below the parapet“, or a reliance on the renegotiation fairy, who can make other member states give the UK everything it wants from Europe, without having to give up anything in return. (Radek Sikorski, Polish foreign minister, doesn’t believe in the renegotiation fairy.)

Two things are clear. We need a proper debate on Europe, and we’re not going to get one. But how can we hold a referendum on a question without an answer?

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Published by Anthony Zacharzewski

Anthony Zacharzewski was one of the founders of Demsoc in 2006. Before starting work for Demsoc in 2010, he was a Whitehall civil servant and a local government officer.