A Q&A with George Walkden on a referendum UK's membership of the EU

Right now, Pirate Party candidates are being asked about their positions on everything from their views on shale gas and union membership through to immigration and the UK's role in the EU.  Its great to see so many people interested in what the Pirate Party has to offer in elections and what our candidates think, and want to achieve.  One question comes up more often than others and that is whether the UK should hold a referendum on its membership of the EU.  It was an issue that came up again and again when we discussed policy as a party and it is an issue that so many people in the UK are talking about.

Of course both the UK's membership of the EU and whether we have a referendum is a matter for the Westminster Parliament.  Those elected in the upcoming EU Parliament elections aren't in a position to change the UK's relationship with the EU at all, that is something our MPs are responsible for.  But since it is an important issue we wanted to make sure our candidates views are clear.  

To reiterate the Party's position from the 2012 manifesto: We believe that a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU should be offered to voters in the UK, and that such a referendum should include the option for the UK to pull out of the EU and negotiate its own agreements with the EU as a whole or with individual member states.  

We posed a set of questions to our European Parliamentary candidates and this was the response we got from George Walkden

  

Editor: Is the question of the UK's membership of the EU one for the public, or best left for our elected representatives?

George: It's one for the public to decide.

Editor: What sorts of issues, if any, should be decided by a national referendum; are there other issues which should be or should have been put to the public in this way?

George:  By and large we have to trust our elected representatives to make decisions; we can't put everything to a referendum. But when we elect our representatives at any level we are implicitly entrusting them with a certain set of powers and responsibilities. If they then want to change those powers and responsibilities, either by increasing them or by reducing them, it is only right that the voters should have a say in the matter.

This holds if we want to shift responsibility for major areas of policy to a supranational organisation like the EU; it would also be true if, for instance, our representatives wanted to abolish the monarchy. Major welfare reforms, on the other hand, probably shouldn't be put to a referendum, since they don't involve a redefinition of the competence of our representatives: if a government does something we don't like to the NHS, it is still within the government's power to undo the change (at least in principle), and the normal response would be to vote for someone else at the next election!

Editor: Is now an appropriate time to hold a referendum on the UK's membership of the EU? If so, why? If not, when would be?

George:  It's as good a time as any, given that the issue is riding high in the public consciousness. The Eurozone can be regarded as a kind of failed experiment: we now know, since the crash, that monetary union without fiscal union has undesirable consequences (as many economists predicted).

That means that the EU is at a crossroads, and many key players are pushing for greater integration in order to stave off this kind of problem in future. That sort of integration is something that the public ought to have a say in.

Editor: Does the UK need to reform its constitution so that a referendum can bind Parliament? Are there other measures that could give the public greater control over Parliament between elections?

George:  This is a big question. Realistically, any constitutional reform would require the UK to actually have a single, formal, written constitution, which it doesn't at the moment.

Drafting such a constitution would be a massive endeavour, and I'm not sure whether it would be a good use of our representatives' time and energy.

Plus it's worth bearing in mind that parliamentary sovereignty is really only an academic theory, with a debatable legal basis. I don't think there's any need for constitutional reform such that a referendum must bind Parliament, since no government is going to call a referendum unless it's fairly sure it can get the result it wants and a government that acted against the result of a referendum would have no hope of getting re-elected. Those two facts together basically ensure that referenda will be binding.

Perhaps a more important innovation would be to allow the electorate to initiate certain kinds of referenda themselves if they collect enough signatures, as is the case in Switzerland. In the age of Avaaz, change.org, 38 Degrees and others, that could be really powerful.

Editor: Is the UK's membership of the EU a real and significant issue facing the UK population, or has it been created by politicians as a way of distinguishing them from others to secure votes?

George:  It's a real issue. It affects consumer rights, the economy, human rights... pretty much everything.

The problem is that "in" vs. "out" is an overly simplistic way of looking at it. There are several important questions we need to ask: Is the EU working (for us, or for anyone)? If no, can we try to fix it? Are there bits of European integration that we want, and bits that we don't want? (The Schengen area, for instance, includes non-EU countries such as Norway and Switzerland but excludes EU countries such as us, and the EEA includes countries outside the core EU.)

Though I support the idea of a referendum, I think it's naïve to imagine that it will really solve anything either way. I'd urge the voting public to look beyond a party's stance on the in/out question. Whether or not there is a referendum, and whether or not we remain in the EU, how our representatives interact with others in Europe will continue to be a significant issue.

Editor: Given widespread misinformation about the EU, and minimal focus within the media and major political parties on countering this, can the public be trusted to give an accurate, informed decision on such a complex issue? Should this matter? 

George:  No, we can't count on the public to make an informed decision without making the case on the EU and helping people to be as informed as they can be. We have to deal with misinformation whether there is a referendum or not. However, since we evidently can't count on our elected representatives to make an decision that isn't based on their own internal political struggles, I don't think it's a big problem.

The important thing is that it should be the electorate deciding, whatever decision they make.