On Tuesday, 19th of April PubAffairs Bruxelles hosted a debate on the theme of Britain’s membership renegotiation and the short-term impacts and long-term consequences for the UK and the EU with Mr Timothy Kirkhope MEP (ECR/UK), Mr Richard Corbett MEP (S&D/UK), Mrs Danuta Maria Hubner MEP (EPP/PL) and Mr David McAllister MEP (EPP/DE). The event was moderated by Gavin Hewitt, BBC Chief Correspondent and a keynote speech was provided by Professor Catherine Barnard, Cambridge University and Leading Expert at UK in a Changing Europe.
Professor Barnard provided a keynote speech on the history of Britain’s EC and EU membership. She stated that Britain’s relationship to Europe was never straightforward, and, although it gained accession to the EU under a Conservative government, Britain’s position towards Europe has always remained ambivalent since the Churchill Zurich declaration on the ‘United States of Europe’ in 1946. This tendency is also confirmed by the fact that Mrs Thatcher campaigned for the entry of the UK in the EU in the 1974 referendum. Professor Barnard attributed this attitude to both a mixture of historical and economic peculiarity as well as to the UK self perception of its international role and a generally negative attitude of UK media towards Europe. However, Professor Barnard also emphasised the UK’s constructive role in the building up of the European single market and further elaborated on the changing stances of both Tories and Whigs towards European institutions. As far as current events were concerned, Prof. Barnard identified the 2004 and 2007 enlargement, migration related-issues and the euro-zone crisis as drivers for further growth of euro-scepticism in Britain. She concluded her keynote speech by reminding the audience of the referendum date, 23 June 2016, and stated her hope for the British population not to be exasperated by the debate when the ballot took place and for the largest participation possible by UK citizens .
Mr Gavin Hewitt introduced the speakers and asked, as a first point of discussion, for what reason the polls remained so close, despite the broad political establishment being in favour of the UK remaining in the EU.
David McAllister MEP stated that the question whether to remain in the EU or not, is a question that the British people would have to answer for itself. He believed that it was of no use for outsider politicians to lecture the local population on which way to vote, but rather urged non-British politicians to express their welcome to the UK remaining in the EU. He further added that the British mass media often remains an influential opponent for those campaigning for the UK to remain in the EU. Danuta Maria Hubner MEP felt that, despite external pressure to remain in the EU, the Leave Campaign could expect a narrow win or loss in the referendum, a fact which in any case will constitute a victory for the eurosceptics as it will provide further ground to gain visibility even in the event of loss. She further noticed that a worrying degree of disinformation with regard to the EU is present in the British debate as, in her opinion, a forward-looking view on what the EU’s basic principles are and what benefits have been and could be reaped has not been adequately offered. Richard Corbett MEP agreed with Mrs Hubner that looking at EU’s achievements may prove more pertinent than investigating the reasons for euroscepticism, as the UK establishment is notably divided and such fragmentation has influenced opinion polls variations. Mr Corbett continued by disagreeing on the fact that the UK’s history is a reason for explaining British euroscepticism, but rather suggested that the British written media is playing a considerable role in exacerbating the debate. He also pointed out the fact that the majority of British newspapers suffer from concentrated patterns of ownership, which have mainly delivered anti-European stances. Timothy Kirkhope MEP stated that stereotypes about both the European Union and European institutions have played a role in the current internal debate and added that, in his opinion, the Conservative Party had not effectively tackled the issues arising after the approval of the Maastricht Treaty by trying to reconcile internal party disagreements. He further added that the crises recently faced by Europe have also surely played a role in fanning anti-Europe sentiments. Mr Kirkhope concluded by reckoning that, even by imagining that the previously mentioned crises had not happened, the debate on the EU would not have changed in tone or in the quality of the arguments.
A second point of discussion concerned the impact that the referendum is currently having on the EU.
Danuta Maria Hubner MEP stated that the timing of the referendum was very unfortunate, as the EU needed unity in order to address the multiple crises it is currently facing. She further believed that regardless of the result, the referendum might have an impact on the behaviour of other member states which might see an opportunity to renegotiate their conditions attached to membership. David McAllister MEP agreed on the fact that the timing was difficult as the EU is facing multiple challenges. He recommended that the Commission limit their activity in the time leading-up to the referendum, as he felt that any unreasonable consequences of legislative activity might provide arguments for the leave campaign. He added that he hoped that, following the referendum, Britain would become more involved in dealing with the problems that the European Union is facing. In this regard, he warned that the referendum would have to be a “once only affair” in order for the entire European community to focus on the challenges ahead. Richard Corbett MEP stated that the British referendum has unfortunately strengthened euroscepticism in other parts of Europe and pointed out that the renegotiated deal between the UK Government and the EU has not received adequate coverage, nor has it achieved the purpose of appeasing certain sections of the Conservative Party or other eurosceptic factions. Timothy Kirkhope MEP disagreed with McAllister MEP on the role the UK has had in addressing EU challenges and argued that the UK has contributed beneficially to the ways the EU operates. He further disagreed with Corbett MEP with regard to the fact that the renegotiating process had not achieved its purpose, as he felt that the renegotiation signified the start of a process to redevelop Europe.
A third point of discussion concerned the possible consequences which United Kingdom leaving would have on the European Union and vice-versa.
David McAllister MEP affirmed that the European Union would still exist and continue its work, but recognised that Britain leaving would be a significant blow to the European Union project. He felt that the departure of Britain would lead to a period of instability for both parties concerned, as a deeper inquiry into Article 50 of TFEU would be needed. He further acknowledged that, in his opinion, the two-year period granted for the dissolution of the membership would not be enough. Danuta Maria Hubner MEP, although she expressed the hope that the results of the referendum would indicate that the British population still wished to be part of the EU, stated that quitting the EU would lead to a new era of negotiations for Britain, which could be painful according to the sentiments and interests of other member states. She also mentioned possible severe repercussions for the City, with special regard to the financial service sector located there. Richard Corbett MEP believed that the ability to negotiate access to the European single market after a referendum in favour of leaving would be extremely difficult. He referred to Norway as an example in which a non-EU member has nevertheless to pay contributions and comply with European law without the possibility of influencing the policy-making process; Norway could be a possible future model for the UK. Furthermore, Mr Corbett refuted the notion of a UK entering into the global market with other emerging global players alone, as such a situation would not be as profitable as being part of the European single market. Timothy Kirkhope MEP stated that the consequences for leaving the EU would be numerous and damaging, particularly as multiple measures in the UK would have to be revoked and re-addressed in areas of great importance, not least within the security domain.
The final part of the debate, Q&A session, also covered the following issues: what drives British voters to back a secession, the legal consequences of European rules and regulations in the UK, consequences for the single market outside of the eurozone, impact on the relationship between the UK and US, reconciliation within the Conservative Party and the UK following the referendum, consequences to European research funding, risks of low turnout in the referendum, the Discrimination Package in the European Parliament.
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