As things stand, the answer the British government is seeking to know in its upcoming referendum on EU membership is an impossible one for the electorate to give. The preferences allowed for on the ballot paper leave out information an electorate would require to have before being in a position to provide an informed response.
If a representative of HM Government turned up at a pub or shopping centre, clipboard in hand, and asked any member of the public “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”, the obvious reply would not be ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ but, ‘…or do what?’.
We can be sure, I think, that the government knows exactly what the ‘what?’ is, but is reluctant to provide the public with that information and hope they won’t notice when being asked the half-question which is now proposed for the referendum’s ballot papers.
If the purpose of a referendum is to yield authority to ‘the people’ on matters of constitutional importance, then the people have a requirement to know – and the government has a duty to tell them – exactly what the consequences of their decision will be before making it. As it is, the question “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?” appears constructed to provide the electorate with one consequence (continued EU membership), but stilted to leave a black hole in absence of the other (???).
As Britain currently does ‘remain a member of the European Union’, the country remains legally bound to comply with its rules and regulations. And in the event of a ‘NO’ vote majority in the referendum, the EU’s rules and regulations make available a clear course of action to take when no public mandate remains for membership. That course of action – formally arranging for a withdrawal – is contained within Article 50 of its Lisbon Treaty.
With this EU procedure being so readily to hand for Mr Cameron to point towards as the other (missing) consequence of the electorate’s decision in the referendum, we might wonder what characteristics Article 50 has which apparently makes the Prime Minister so keen to keep it out of view? The article provides for a State’s voluntary withdrawal – facilitated by the negotiation of a broad-ranging new Agreement to use in place of membership. And the voluntary underpinnings of Article 50’s process allows for the State to put that concluded Agreement itself to a referendum (“in accordance with its own constitutional requirements”) as the ultimate decider of whether that withdrawal takes place or not.
As we can see, the missing part to Mr Cameron’s referendum question would, were it to be included, inform the electorate of an option so compelling the likely result of the vote would be unanimously in its favour. The full question would go something like this: ”Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union, or should the United Kingdom negotiate a new Agreement with the European Union to use in the event of a future referendum decision to withdraw?”
Whether acknowledged or not, that is the choice before the public when they go to the ballot box in 2017 (or before). And whether acknowledged or not… the Europhiles are slowing but surely being edged into a corner.