Wednesday 17 October 2012

Why not have a referendum on justice co-operation?

In the UK the Conservatives have been blundering about with EU policy again. Home Secretary Theresa May, who talked about rolling back the free movement of people not so long ago, is now talking up the possibility of the UK opting out of the area of freedom, justice and security altogether. The coalition LibDems have not exactly killed the idea, but pulled the rug from under May when he said that no decision had been made, leaving May to provide the House of Commons with an empty statement about the government's "current thinking".

There's a lot of comment about how short-sighted it is to pull out of justice co-operation, and on how the Conservative approach to the EU has been a shambolic case of issuing announcements with little thought and then scrambling to deal with the aftermath. While I agree that opting out of the JHA area en bloc is a terrible idea that would weaken the UK's security, I'm confused over why the Tories have been so inept over this issue: why not have a referendum on justice co-operation?

Seriously. If Nick Clegg will only go as far as saying that nothing has been agreed yet (suggesting that the LibDems might be reconciled to the opt-out if the UK opts back into several JHA measures), and ministers are going to engage in such policy kite-flying, then why not put the issue to the people or make noises about doing so? It would give the people a referendum on the EU, let people express an opinion on at least one aspect of the EU relationship that the Conservatives want re-balancing (and why not gauge opinion on what aspects of the EU the public want to buy into?), and would allow the Conservatives to partly deliver on their promise of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty (in this case opting in or out of the post-Lisbon justice area).

The Home Secretary would not have been able to make a statement straight away, but the Conservatives could have started agitating for a referendum, and there is general agreement that some EU referendum has to happen sometime soon. It would have given the Conservatives space to test waters and refine their position and avoided statement grandstanding while winning a political point on the issue. Sounds like a better strategy than the current farcical posturing.

So why not have a referendum? Perhaps it's because it would be awkward for the party of law and order to campaign for opting out of law and order co-operation - maybe it's just simply politically uncomfortable as a gamble, with little likelihood of success. It's hard to sell the idea that the justice system won't suffer from the opt-out because we'll go back to the EU and negotiate specific opt-ins: not exactly a great rallying cry. And even a total opt-out with no subsequent opt-ins would be a hard sell.

In other words, if you hold a referendum on justice co-operation, the Europhiles would probably be the winners. Now that would be a Tory nightmare worse than their own bungling.


  1. Count me sceptical. Any referendum on an EU-issue other than in/out would be overshadowed by the in/out question, with all voters who favour "out" voting for the anti-EU side. (And likewise for the Europhiles.) So a referendum on justice co-operation would lead to a Eurosceptic win, but not for any sane reason.

  2. Pro- and anti-EU voters would be fixed into either side of the debate, but the issues are more concrete than with a simple in-or-out vote, making it easier to bring the argument to the undecideds. It would still be close-fought (which is why I'm confused over why the Tories didn't take this chance if the leadership is ok with opting out), but easier for pro-EU types than arguing across the full range of EU policy areas.

    Those on the pro-EU side of the argument really need to start engaging the public in the debate and challenging the anti-EU consensus in the UK's political culture. We have to start somewhere, and if JHA looks like it's on the way out, then why not make a stand here?

  3. Sadly, I'm as pessimistic as Martinned, because the UK 'debate' about EU affairs has entered fundamentalist territory.

    Naturally there is always a need for those who try to appeal to reason, but their glory often waits until afterlife.

  4. Maybe I've absorbed too much of the Irish tradition of the glorious failure, then... ;)

  5. @Eurocentric,
    If it's any consolation, I keep writing about the need for functioning European level democracy, even if the "owners" of the EU (EUCO) and the eurozone (Euro Summit, Eurogroup) studiously ignore this issue, which would turn their union into a union of citizens.