The Brexit Debate
- Lectures and events
- Publication Date
The events brought together a panel of experts for a discussion of the key issues in the debate on the UK and Europe.
Chaired by Peter Jones, freelance business and economics journalist.
- Professor Sir Anton Muscatelli FRSE, Principal and Vice-Chancellor, University of Glasgow.
- Professor Ronald MacDonald OBE, Professor of Macroeconomics and International Finance at the Adam Smith Business School, University of Glasgow.
- Professor Charles Nolan FRSE, Bonar-MacFie Chair of Political Economy, University of Glasgow.
Chaired by Ken MacDonald, BBC Scotland.
- Professor David Bell CBE FRSE, Professor of Economics, University of Stirling.
- Richard Brodie, Edinburgh Europa Insitute, School of Social & Political Science, University of Edinburgh.
- Professor Christina Boswell FRSE, University of Edinburgh.
Chaired by Sir Muir Russell KCB DL FRSE
- Professor Neil Walker FBA, FRSE, University of Edinburgh.
- Professor Michael Keating FBA, FRSE, University of Aberdeen.
- Professor Iain McLean FBA, FRSE, Nuffield College, Oxford.
- Dr Tobias Lock, University of Edinburgh.
The view of the UK Government is that the renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s European Union (EU) membership has secured significant changes to the terms of membership and that remaining in the EU has many significant economic advantages for the UK. Opponents argue that little has changed and that if the UK remains in the EU it will face increasing interference in economic and social policy to the detriment of long-term economic performance. This event considered the economics of the choice either to remain in or leave the EU, and how trade could be affected by the Referendum’s result.
Some (Macro) Economic Aspects of the European Referendum
Professor Muscatelli began his presentation by highlighting the complexity of the debate, and how there are many economic variables involved when discussing possible alternative models. In the current debate, the direct cost of EU membership is highlighted. If the UK were to leave, its direct financial contribution to the EU would end. In 2014/15, the UK contribution to the EU was £9 billion. If the UK was a member of the EEA, like Norway, it would nevertheless have to pay funds to the EU.
Professor Muscatelli then went on to discuss the EU influence on UK taxation. The operation of the EU common external tariff (CET) and value-added tax (VAT) imposes certain constraints on the broad structure of UK taxes. Professor Muscatelli believes that it is highly likely that if the UK were to leave the EU, VAT would remain a feature of the fiscal landscape. Exiting the EU would not shield the UK, or the EU, from tax competition, which
might arise across any group of countries whether they are in a free trade area or not.
The single most important economic question in the Referendum debate is whether the UK would trade more if we were to leave the EU. The EU is by some distance the UK’s single most important trading partner. One explanation for why trade with the EU is so important is because it is less costly to trade there and that these costs have been decreasing. Supporters of Brexit suggest that the UK would benefit from adopting an entirely free-trade policy employing no tariffs whatsoever on imports, and exploiting most-favoured-nation access to all World Trade Organisation members’ markets. Professor Muscatelli argued that the argument that trade could be easily re-oriented to other markets depends on how competitive one believes international goods markets to be. The reality may be that if the UK opts to leave, it might have to choose between adopting EU rules or being excluded from the Single Market.
Migration, labour markets and employment were also discussed. Large inflows of migrants may lead to pressures on local infrastructure and amenities, although comprehensive data on the extent of that problem is not available. Immigration, from the EU and elsewhere, can fill skill gaps in the workforce and, more widely, rejuvenate the ageing workforce. It has been argued, however, that the current and prospective scale of immigration outstrips what would be needed to benefit from rejuvenating effects. It seems likely that if the UK is to decisively affect immigration from the EU, it will have to leave.
London is one of the most important financial centres in the world. For some, the fear is that Brexit, and the loss of the automatic European business passport, will reduce business opportunities in the short term at least. Professor Muscatelli argued that being outside of the EU will likely make little difference to the financial regulatory burden facing UK-based financial firms. If the UK were to leave the EU, it could no longer rely on Single Market rules to ensure its competitive advantage. Moreover, future access to European markets would
require UK businesses to meet European standards while having much less of an input into their design.
Professor Muscatelli concluded by outlining the possible impact on macroeconomics in the short term, and reiterated how difficult it is to quantify all of the costs and benefits of remaining in, or leaving, the European Union.
Trade and the 2016 European Referendum
Professor MacDonald argued that the aspect of EU membership that is regarded as most relevant to the referendum is the Single Market. The fundamental question in terms of trade and the EU Referendum is: is the Single Market superior in terms of the gains from trade when compared with an alternative? A single market with a population of approximately 500 million consumers provides the opportunity for any participating country to increase its degree of openness to trade; thereby maximising its economic gains.
The majority of international trade today is intra-industry trade. The UK’s largest single-state trading partner is Germany. Proponents of Brexit use this as an argument for leaving the EU, and negotiating individual trade deals. There is an important distinction to be made between trade in goods and trade in services. The EU has been very good at eliminating trade costs in goods, but not as effective in services.
Professor MacDonald then went on to discuss trade theory as a way of providing a toolkit for voters to think through the implications of the Remain and Leave positions on trade. The first view that he discussed was that of Adam Smith; that if each country focuses on the production of the goods in which it has an absolute advantage, in terms of the efficiency of production/low cost, it can be better off by engaging in international trade rather than remaining in an autarkic situation. An autarkic situation is when a country can survive or
continue its activities without external assistance or international trade. If two countries specialise in the production of the good each has a comparative advantage in, the overall production of both goods increases. In addition, both countries can be made better off by engaging in trade with each other, rather than remaining in a no-trade or autarkic situation.
Professor MacDonald then briefly covered the Ricardian model, which argues that it is still beneficial to trade if one country is relatively more productive in the production of at least one good. This model takes into account comparative advantage and relative productivity. It gives a clear prediction that trading patterns will be determined by productivity, or technological, differentials across countries and that the goods traded are dissimilar. Today, however, most trade takes place in similar goods. It was noted, however, that one of the only
studies supportive of the Ricardian view is in the context of the Single Market and EU trade.
Another theory Professor MacDonald covered was the Heckscher–Ohlin–Samuelson model. Assuming that one country has a relative abundance of capital while the other country has a relative abundance of labour, the basic prediction of this model is that a country will export goods that use its abundant factors intensively, and import goods that use its scarce factors intensively. Professor MacDonald believes that this model is not very useful in the EU context.
In the New Trade Theory (NTT) model, preferences are very important. Individuals have a desire to consume a whole range of differentiated goods (goods that are effectively similar and close substitutes for each other) produced by monopolistically competitive companies. Due to this competition, businesses tend either to congregate geographically or agglomerate. Professor MacDonald argued that this model is highly relevant to the EU Referendum.
The key point of the New New Trade Theory (NNTT) is that as trade barriers are lowered, competition is stimulated and low-productivity firms that had been protected by barriers within the same industry go out of business and are replaced by the increased volume production of high-productivity firms. This model clearly supports the Single Market.
In the gravity model, other things being equal, the further apart two trading nations or blocs are, the greater the transportation costs and the less they are expected to trade. Trade is also seen to be directly proportional to the mass of the two countries.
Professor MacDonald concluded by questioning if the UK would be able to independently renegotiate free trade areas in the case of Brexit. If it could, how long would this process take and how much uncertainty would it generate?
Question and Answer Session
Professor Anton Muscatelli, Professor Charles Nolan and Professor Ronald MacDonald, all from the University of Glasgow
When the question of the vote is raised, pro-Brexiteers argue that it’s all about sovereignty, and regaining what has been lost to the EU. Is this argument valid in a world of interconnectivity?
Yes, the UK will gain sovereignty. But what would we be giving up to gain that sovereignty? What is the alternative? Sovereignty is an interesting issue, but you also need to consider elements such as trade deals and labour mobility within the new context. In the case of Brexit, the UK may regain its authority to negotiate trade deals, but may lose the power needed to negotiate.
In the case of Brexit, what would be the cost of trading across borders?
There is a considerable cost associated with trading across borders. If the UK votes to leave, erecting borders will prohibit the very trade that many clusters depend upon.
Can you expand on the claim that Scotland breaks even in terms of its contribution to the EU, and the funding that it receives from it?
Where regional development funds and regional social funds are spent is not equal across the UK. Scotland receives more in areas such as agricultural funding. Scottish Universities also receive a significant amount of funding from the EU.
British Trade with the EU is in deficit – that sounds like a bad thing?
The EU cannot be blamed for the UK’s deficit. The issue of the current account has to be discussed elsewhere. It is less of an issue because we have our own currency. Nonetheless, a Brexit vote, given the size of the UK’s current account deficit, could lead to a ‘sudden stop’ in external financing of the deficit, which could have dramatic implications for the UK economy.
Europe (and the Single Market) has achieved the removal of tariffs, created a customs union, created a level playing field to do with services and qualifications. The regulations are standardised for a reason: to make all other trade frictionless. Exiting the EU, then negotiating something similar, will take a significant amount of time and money. Leaving the EU and putting up tariff barriers will essentially worsen the trade deficit.
Is there any way we would benefit in trade with China by leaving the EU?
There wouldn’t be many advantages. The distance between the UK and China would lead to increased transactions costs. The UK would also lose a lot of trade with the EU in the case of Brexit. With regard to negotiating free trade deals, the heft of the EU is probably better than the UK negotiating in isolation.
How long will it take to transition if the UK votes to leave the EU?
Once Article 50 of the Treaty of Lisbon is activated, there is a two-year window to unpick the relationship. The renegotiation would then begin to rebuild a relationship. Many experts estimate that this will take a decade. For example, the Free Trade Agreement with Canada has taken seven years, and is continuing.
In the case of a Brexit vote, could the UK not just ‘cut and paste’ all of the EU agreements it has been a signatory of?
Why would any country accept the same deal for the UK that it had with the EU? The UK would not have the negotiating powers of the EU.
What would go wrong if we did stay in the EU?
The Democratic deficit may deepen. That is to say, the extent to which supra-national institutions begin to impinge on the call for greater sovereignty.
This event examined what it means to live and work in Europe, either with the UK as a continuing member, or with some new form of relationship with the European Union (EU) that would be negotiated following a leave vote.
Labour Markets, Migration and Benefits
Professor Bell began by highlighting how people in work are central to the European Referendum debate. He then went on to discuss labour market policy and the Single Market. The cost of participation in the Single Market includes member states surrendering some sovereignty to the EU. Participation also means that the UK cannot treat someone who comes to the UK from another member state differently from its own citizens. The benefits of being part of the Single Market include increased competition, access to a much larger market and removal of tariffs as a hindrance to trade.
Professor Bell then discussed labour market regulation and labour market policy. Labour market regulation is more about setting ‘floors’ for wages and working conditions, to prevent a ‘race to the bottom’ in the labour market. Labour market regulation in the EU is incomplete. For example, there is no regulation regarding the minimum wage.
Some member states have relinquished more sovereignty as a consequence of joining the Euro. In order to remain competitive, these countries are looking at other mechanisms to stimulate their economies. One such mechanism is labour market policy. The EU labour market policy is now moving away from a focus on workers’ rights and towards promoting labour market efficiency. Although this policy direction is also in line with the approach taken by successive UK governments and may therefore seem a less obvious target for Brexit
criticism, some would argue that the EU should not have a role in economic policymaking – particularly in respect of those outside the Eurozone, where the benefits of economic policy coordination are less clear.
Professor Bell concluded by discussing the free movement of labour, which has been a particularly contentious issue in the UK, due to the very substantial in-migration of workers from the EU8 accession states (Czech Republic, Estonia, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Poland, Slovakia, Slovenia) after 2004. Advocates of Brexit have argued that much of the migration to the UK is motivated by the attractiveness of Britain’s benefits system.
Professor Bell refutes this claim. In general, migrants come to the UK to work and therefore are more likely to claim in-work benefits, rather than out of work benefits. Migrants’ net contribution in terms of the revenues contributed to the UK Government, set against the costs of providing public services is relatively small in the short run, but migrants may provide long-run benefits to the economy.
Social Policy in Europe
Mr Brodie began by pointing out how social policy has been an important aspect of debating the Referendum. It was at the centre of Prime Minister Cameron’s recent renegotiation.
The national welfare state is part of the national identity in many countries, not just the UK. Some people believe that the EU is now involving itself in social policy to such an extent that it is taking away even more sovereignty from its member states. It is difficult to define what the social dimension of Europe is; it means different things to different states. It could be about reinforcing competitiveness, or about keeping social standards high. Mr Brodie argued that the impact of the EU on welfare states is exaggerated: it does not have a great deal of power to change the way we use our welfare states. Most social policy introduced by the EU is work-related, for example, the pension age. This is because most social policy is geared towards the freedom of movement of workers.
Another principle of welfare policies within the EU is the notion of subsidiarity. This means that action should be taken at the lowest possible level dependent on the nature of the policy. For example, if the EU is the best institution to make that decision, it will. If, however, the decision is better made at a member state level, then that is where it should be made. In a general sense, the European social dimension is semi-sovereign. The key areas of welfare policy remain in the hands of the member states.
Mr Brodie concluded by arguing that treating citizens in exactly the same way across all member states is a founding principle of the EU. What the UK appears to be seeking is two sets of rights; one for British citizens, and one for citizens of other member states coming to work in Britain. This poses a challenge to some human rights, and to dignity, integration and inclusion. The proposals could be seen as singling out those who don’t belong, and labelling them as ‘others’. The welfare state is an institution that treats people equally. However, the renegotiation could change this.
European Union Immigration
Professor Boswell reviewed the various arguments about immigration being put forward in the Referendum debate, and considered how remaining in or leaving the EU might affect immigration to the UK.
Aggregate flows are central to the migration discussion, but they need to be disaggregated as otherwise, they do not paint a clear picture. For example, some areas of the UK would welcome more immigrants, whereas other parts of the UK believe that they are ‘full’.
Given widespread public concerns about immigration, the claim that Brexit will enhance UK sovereignty over immigration appears to have considerable traction with voters. In the event of a vote to leave, there are reasons to question whether the UK would be able to withdraw from the EU’s free movement provisions while retaining full access to the Single Market. There is no precedent of a country being a full member of the Single Market without accepting EU provisions on free movement. It seems clear that even the ‘leave’ side of the campaign have accepted this.
The UK has been trying, yet failing, to limit immigration from non-EU countries for a number of years. The Government has failed to meet its targets in a difficult political climate. Of the visas that have been issued by the UK, the highest number are for study, followed by work. One could argue that if we withdraw from the EU, we could be more selective about which immigrants we accept, for example by favouring those who are highly skilled. Of the EU nationals who are coming to the UK currently, many have a job before arriving. Many are
also working in lower-skilled jobs than they are qualified for. Foreign workers appear to be more flexible than UK workers, and more willing to take jobs that UK citizens may see as unappealing. This is an example of a labour market mismatch. Cutting off this flow of workers may have consequences for the UK economy.
It is difficult to see how a UK government could substantially limit EU immigration without incurring significant economic costs, or simply necessitating increased levels of non-EU immigration; and there is little to suggest that EU immigration is more expendable to the UK economy.
Indeed, labour market policies aimed at improving the wages and conditions of lower-skilled jobs – and, crucially, policies to enforce such measures – are likely to have a greater influence on labour migration than leaving the EU. These policies, however, may become more expensive for employers who try to circumvent the system. What effect will it have on employer behaviour, and how will it be enforced? It is difficult to predict the outcome of these policy changes.
Professor Boswell concluded by looking at EU immigration in the medium to long term. She argued that demand for foreign labour is likely to remain high, but concerns about EU free movement provisions as a source of unwanted immigration are likely to recede.
Question and Answer Session
Professor David Bell, Richard Brodie and Professor Christina Boswell
The panel was asked about the prospect of the economies of the EU member states improving over the next 5-10 years. This is tied to the fortunes of the Single Currency. Being signed up to the Euro locks countries into a fixed exchange rate with Germany. There is an unwillingness in northern Europe to forgive the debt of some of the southern EU states who find themselves in the most serious financial difficulty. The only action available to these states to begin alleviating their debt is to enact policies that enforce austerity and look to improve competitiveness.
The issue of whether Brexit would affect emigration from the UK was raised. The number of emigrants leaving Britain has remained relatively flat. If companies were to relocate away from the UK following a vote to leave the EU, would British workers follow? It is possible that UK residents currently living in other member states could return in case of Brexit.
A member of the audience asked the panel for their thoughts on the migration crisis. The EU faces a dilemma of wishing to extend the humanitarian assistance it provides with a desire not to increase the ‘pull factors’ drawing migrants into the EU. The EU could create a buffer zone around its borders and essentially outsource the responsibility for policing the entry of migrants to neighbouring states through a set of agreements. The ethical acceptability of such action, however, is questionable. The economic policy of the UK is a significant ‘pull factor’ for migrants.
The panel was asked whether the UK should adopt a points-based system for immigration, similar to that used by Australia. This would allow the Government to match certain skills and specific demographic traits with the needs of the British economy. Some employers are currently in a position of being unable to fill skilled vacancies. However, despite utilising this system, Australia still allows immigrants with lower skill levels to enter the country. The points system covers only a small percentage of Australian migration.
The negative perception of immigration was raised, and the panel were asked why they think that this is the case. One reason could be that people are looking for someone to blame for economic and social issues, and migrants are an easy group to blame. There are also pockets of resentment due to the pressure on public services, but this is not necessarily in areas that have a high immigrant population. Some political parties are also legitimising the views held by the public, and capitalising on them.
The issue of how immigration policy develops post-Referendum was raised. This issue is a difficult one and intrinsically tied to the future of the Conservative Party. The level of “losers’ consent” following the result of the vote will be important. The major parties in the UK will need to reflect seriously on policy in this area. Migration may prove beneficial to the UK economy in the long term.
Professor Alan Alexander OBE FRSE, General Secretary of the RSE, welcomed the audience to the final event in the Enlightening the European Debate series. The calendar of events has been necessarily compressed due to the date of the Referendum and the truncated campaign period. He provided brief introductions for the speakers.
The Chair, Sir Muir Russell, gave formal introductions for the main speakers for the evening: Professor Neil Walker FRSE and Professor Michael Keating FRSE.
In, Out or In-between? Britain’s Uncertain Place in Europe after the European Referendum
Professor Walker noted that his paper had been written several weeks ago and that the debate had become more polarised since. The Prime Minister negotiated a qualified settlement with the EU, which seems to have been forgotten in the current debate.
Irrespective of the outcome of the Referendum, there will be uncertainty. Currently, there is uncertainty surrounding numerous aspects of the discussion, including the result of the vote; the preferences of both sides following the result; potentially protracted and unpredictable negotiations; and differing and evolving visions of Europe.
While, in the event of a vote to leave the EU, Article 50 of the Treaty on European Union would provide the framework for the UK’s withdrawal, there is no precedent for this. There is also no scope for a ‘Bremain’ option, whereby the UK could attempt to negotiate improved terms and hold a second referendum on membership. The two-year period for negotiation is not a hard and fast deadline and could be extended with the approval of the remaining member states. There is, however, no guidance in EU treaties as to the content and extent
of an agreement; it is highly likely that multiple further agreements addressing various areas would also be required.
Professor Walker outlined the five most prominent conditions the Prime Minister negotiated in February:
- Removing the ‘ever closer Union’ commitment;
- Further empowering national parliaments;
- Reforming economic governance issues inside and outside the Eurozone;
- Restricting social benefits associated with free movement;
- Enhancing competitiveness in the free market.
The provisions empowering national parliaments and enhancing competitiveness do not constitute significant changes to the status quo. In order to reshape economic governance and remove ‘ever closer Union’, further Treaty amendments would be needed, which would require the unanimous consent of all EU member states, while new EU legislation on social benefits would require the support of varying majorities of states. There will be lingering resistance within the EU to all of the measures negotiated, even in the case of a UK vote to
remain a member.
The term “differentiated integration” is used to describe the differing extent to which states, both EU member and non-member, participate in the Union. There has been a move toward this model since enlargement and increased competencies began in the 1990s. A number of different differentiated integration models exist:
- Multi-speed Europe (all states are travelling toward the same destination, just at different speeds);
- Concentric circles/variable geometry (there are different tiers of integration, allowing countries to integrate to a certain level);
- Europe à la carte (states can pick and choose the parts of EU membership they wish to participate in).
Irrespective of whether the UK votes to leave or remain, there will remain some form of differentiated integration with the EU. The trend from the Leave side of the debate appears to have shifted from advocating a more integrated model (such as the relationship between Norway and the EU), toward a looser model. Professor Walker noted that if the UK voted to remain a member and adopted a new model based on the February agreement, this could lead to several different outcomes. It is possible that there would be no material change to the UK’s relationship with the EU; the UK could find itself ‘outside’ the core Union in a more isolated position; or, the decision could start a new wave of differentiated integration in the Union, and allow for multi-lateral reform.
Professor Walker concluded his remarks by noting that the debate had been very insular in the UK, with little discussion of the European public good. Equally, there has also been limited public interest in the debate from the rest of Europe. This belies the importance of the precedent that would be set should the UK decide to leave.
The European Union, the Nations and the Regions
Professor Keating began his presentation by noting that that the EU Referendum result could have a profound effect on the internal constitution of the United Kingdom. The European Union framework penetrates the devolution settlement in place in the UK, with provisions in the Scotland Act requiring that laws passed by Holyrood comply with European law.
There is also a significant political dimension to be considered, as views toward Europe differ significantly across the regions of the UK. In Scotland, polls suggest that there is a clear majority of the population that supports continued membership of the EU, while all the major Scottish political parties also hold this view. This notably differs from the situation in England and Wales, where opinion is more evenly split. It is possible that the Referendum outcome could see different regions of the UK voting in different ways.
Professor Keating outlined some of the potential scenarios that could occur:
- The UK votes to leave the EU, against the wishes of a majority of Scots – This could lead to a constitutional crisis in the UK. The SNP has publicly stated that such a scenario would constitute a material and significant change in circumstances and would provide a mandate for a second Scottish Independence Referendum. However, in reality, the situation would not be straightforward. A situation where Scotland left the UK to re-join or remain a member of, the EU would pose several different challenges to the SNP that were not present in the 2014 Referendum, including a ‘hard’ border with the rest of the UK.
- England votes to leave the EU, but a Scottish majority to remain keeps the UK in – This would likely exacerbate tensions between England and Scotland, particularly in light of contentious issues around areas such ‘English Votes for English Laws’, the West Lothian question and the Barnett Formula, that already exist. It could lead to a rise in English nationalism.
- The UK votes to leave the EU, and takes Scotland with it – This would affect the devolution settlement. The convention, agreed by all parties, requires that any change in the competencies of the Scottish Parliament be approved at Holyrood. Unless Westminster invokes the exception clause in the Scotland Act (2016) and declares that this is not a ‘normal matter’, the legislation to leave the European Union could require Scottish consent. There are also repercussions for Northern Ireland, as Europe was a significant background factor in the peace settlement. If the UK left the EU, this would create a hard border between the two parts of Ireland. It could also undermine the power-sharing arrangements, as polls suggest that the great majority of nationalist electors will vote Remain, while unionists tend towards Leave.
- The UK votes to remain, with all of the constituent nations voting to remain – Even in this scenario there are constitutional issues. There are different attitudes to the EU in different areas of the UK. The UK Government has secured a provision exempting the United Kingdom from ‘ever closer Union’, and so opting out of EU policy may become the norm. It is not certain that the governments of Scotland and Wales will wish to follow such a UK Government policy.
Professor Keating concluded his remarks by noting that in discussions with the European Union, ultimately it is the UK Government that speaks for the entire country, including the devolved administrations. If the UK Government continues to make decisions on behalf of the devolved administrations that their respective governments oppose, tensions will increase.
Question and Answer Session
The Chair introduced Professor Iain McLean FRSE, Dr Tobias Lock and Professor Charles Jeffery CBE FRSE; who joined Professors Walker and Keating on the panel to answer questions from the audience.
The panel were asked if they could explain the WTO model of differentiated integration in more detail. Professor Walker noted that if the UK adopted this model then it would quite simply be completely out of the EU. A model closer to the one enjoyed by Switzerland would still allow certain bilateral treaties with the EU. The discussion opens up the question of how necessary trade agreements are and how easily they can be negotiated. There are inherent difficulties in negotiating with a multiparty organisation such as the EU; however, smaller single entities attempting to negotiate to suffer from being a lower priority to those they may be negotiating with.
A question was raised as to whether the UK could make the changes it wishes to social benefits at a domestic level, without European treaty change. Dr Lock stated that the basic EU framework mandates that there is no discrimination. The problem for the UK is that its benefits system is tax-funded and not contributory. This could be changed, but the UK Government would be very reluctant to do this. Professor Walker added that the European Court of Justice has pushed back against this principle to allow some leeway for member states. The settlement the Prime Minister negotiated in February around social benefits is not purely symbolic and does provide the UK Government with some legal power.
A member of the audience asked whether a Referendum is the best vehicle for deciding a technical issue, such as UK membership of the EU under the negotiated terms. They also queried whether, as the Referendum is not legally binding, there could be political fallout in Parliament. Professor Jeffery noted that since the Referendum on EU membership in the 1970s, it has become convention that referendums are held on major constitutional issues. Professor McLean suggested that while there has been some briefing from MPs in recent days over the sovereignty of Parliament in these matters, it is exceedingly unlikely that Parliament would not ratify the popular will.
The panel were asked for their thoughts over an alleged rise in populism throughout Europe and whether, irrespective of the Referendum outcome, politics ultimately would be the loser. Professor Jeffery argued that mobilisation around an issue can increase engagement; as was the case with the Scottish Independence Referendum. A simple binary question can cut through traditional party lines. It is possible that something similar could happen after the EU Referendum. Professor Keating gave his view that politics was, indeed, the loser in the process. The current debate has lost all semblance of reason amid the ludicrous claims
being made by both sides. Finally, Professor McLean suggested that this was the most dishonest Referendum in living memory. Bogus numbers and ‘facts’ were a feature of the previous Referendum on European Community membership in 1975, but not on the scale we are currently experiencing.
The issue was raised as to whether differential implementation of powers throughout the UK (while still in the EU) was possible. Professor Keating noted that the EU could give sub-state entities a level of discretion in areas such as environmental or agricultural policy. Sub-state regions could have the status of ‘partners’ of the EU. Discussion around this area has taken place in the past but ultimately gone nowhere. This issue is not currently on the agenda in Brussels.
The panel were asked for their opinion on the motives and focus of the European Union. Professor Walker suggested that both sides of the Referendum debate had misused discussion over the Second World War. The EU has a mixed record in recent times in the area of peace-keeping, with the Balkans a notable example. The narrative of the European Union as a peace project has been lost. Professor Keating argued that in this regard, the EU has been a victim of its own success. A Franco-German war is now inconceivable. The Union also suffers from a loss of clear vision. The Convention on the Future of Europe, which took place more than a decade ago, did not prove successful. Dr Lock argued that it is exceedingly difficult for the EU to take stock of its position and future, as it is constantly firefighting. A string of crises involving the single currency, rule of law and refugees has
meant that a sustained period of reflection has not been possible.
A member of the audience asked how the result of the Referendum would affect the UK’s position in the world. Professor McLean suggested that if the UK left the EU, the change would not be too pronounced; we would still be a member of organisations such as NATO. The major issues facing the world will remain outwith our control, irrespective of our relationship with the European Union. Professor Jeffery noted that Brexit would lead to a
complex negotiation, and could also result in various constitutional issues rearing their heads. The result of this could be that in the short to medium term, the UK would become very insular and inward-looking.
Vote of Thanks
Professor Alexander thanked all of the speakers for their contributions, and the audience for their attendance and questions. He gave special recognition to the Chair, Sir Muir, for his work throughout the series.