In a powerful and well-argued speech on Monday, Owen Paterson, fired (unwisely) as environment secretary by David Cameron earlier this year, shows that he understands the most important single fact about a possible in/out referendum on British membership of the EU: As things currently stand the euroskeptics will lose.
Answering the question of how we leave the political arrangements of EU is every bit as important as addressing the question why. Even people who are broadly in favour of withdrawal are unlikely to commit to the process unless they are assured that all the angles have been covered. A definitive plan will give the necessary reassurance.
Voters have not been presented with a clear vision of what life outside the EU would look like for the UK and in the absence of any detail I am convinced that if an “in-out” referendum were held today, there would be a natural tendency to vote for the status quo….
The answer to this is to invoke Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty. It is the only legally binding mechanism that we can use to require the rest of the EU to enter formal negotiations with us, on setting out a new relationship. It allows two years for negotiations, so there would still be time for a referendum in 2017. This would now be on the outcome of the talks, when the details of the settlement would be known.
As the (admittedly narrow and probably temporary) failure of the Scots to win back their independence reminds us, flag alone is not enough. The nationalists could never quite convince the voters that an independent Scotland would work (for very good reason, but that’s another story).
Euroskeptics would face a similar problem in any EU referendum. The key to a convincing argument that life outside the EU will be fine will be in the details (a topic EUReferendum’s Richard North has been discussing for a long time now — the truly dedicated should read this).
Brexit will have to be structured not as an abrupt breach, but as a more gradual disengagement, leaving much of Britain’s relationship with the EU unchanged in practice, even if the legal basis for it has been transformed. That makes good economic sense and will be a lot less daunting to voters worried about what lies ‘outside’.
The whole speech is worth reading in full, not least for Paterson’s concise explanation of the way that the EU’s integration process was disguised and then managed, a process that culminated (for now) with the Lisbon Treaty:
We see the same pattern again and again: the adoption of EU national symbols, the euro, the social chapter, the phasing out of national vetoes. First, we’d be told that it wasn’t on the agenda at all. Then we’d be told it was technically on the agenda, but not to worry as the UK had a veto. Then, without any intervening stage, we’d find the thing was inevitable, agreed in principle years ago, and that there was no use complaining now.
And Paterson takes aim the often repeated claim that being in the EU gives Britain a say that counts.
It’s not so true within the EU:
There is little we can do to change things from the inside, as we are outvoted. When we joined, the UK had 20 percent of the votes in the European Parliament, today we have 9.5 percent. We had 17 percent of the votes in the Council of Ministers, now we have eight. The UK has not managed to block a single proposal from the Commission passing through the Council despite trying 55 times.
And it’s not so true outside it:
We are told that being outside the EU would significantly diminish our influence by removing ourselves from the negotiating table of the world’s largest trading bloc.
Nothing could, in fact, be further from the truth.
Decision-making takes place at a global level through a variety of bodies and regulations. And we do not have seats at these “top tables” as we have handed power to the European Commission to represent us along with 27 other Member States. On these global councils, we have one twenty-eighth of one seat.13
What so very few understand about this process is that the game changed substantially in 1994. It was then that the EU adopted the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreement. This incredibly important instrument requires the participating parties (including the EU) to adopt international standards in preference to their own. Thus, if any other international body adopts standards which impinge on the EU’s laws, it is obliged to scrap them and implement the new standards.
This provision is not optional. The Agreement uses the word “shall”, which is why the EU has no choice but to progressively replace its laws with international rules.
The WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT) Agreement!
Coming to an EU debate near you. Or at least it needs to . . .