I wrote a few weeks ago that the number one priority of those at the heart of the coalition, and especially those close to Nick Clegg, was not to have a referendum on Europe. But there are people on his side who think the Lib Dem leader should effectively call the Eurosceptics’ bluff and back a referendum, not just on any new European treaty, but on the UK’s very membership of the union. It is an argument even Clegg used to advance.
Philip Stephens, the FT’s chief political commentator, made this call a few weeks ago in a provocative column (at least for a europhile) entitled Britain’s eurosceptics are right to call for a referendum. In it he argued:
Barring a euro break-up, Britain and its partners are now set on different courses. At some point the divergence will become unsustainable. The Tory sceptics may be right after all. There is a case for an in-or-out referendum. My guess is the sceptics would be sorely disappointed by the outcome. The voters are realists. Much as Brussels may irritate them, they know there is nothing splendid about isolation.
Now YouGov have done some polling that seems to back up Stephens’ conclusions, especially about the outcome of such a referendum.
The pollsters found that the previous majority in favour of Britain leaving the EU had been eroded, and as many people now said they wanted to stay in as said they wanted to leave.
It is worth pointing out that on this occasion, unlike in previous polls, YouGov asked a series of questions about European policy first before asking whether the UK should stay in or leave the EU. They included eight questions on whether the EU should play any role in forming individual countries’ policies, and in three of those, people believed they should (climate change, trade and foreign affairs).
As Peter Kellner, YouGov’s president, has pointed out in his blog, asking questions about the EU first – especially ones where repondents felt it should play a role – may have made respondents more likely to say the UK should stay in.
But if that is the case, it only bolsters the argument of those who say a referendum would deliver a pro-EU response. It would demonstrate, as many have said, that the more British people hear about Europe, the less eurosceptic their views.
To that extent, the words of Guido Westerwelle, the German foreign minister, who is on a trip to the UK today, may help. He said:
It is in our common interest and in our mutual interest to have a strong segment of financial service here in the City of London, and if you would go into details you would see how many German, French, Spanish, Italian banks are invested here in the City of London.
I think you see it is obvious that we share this goal, and I want to tell you that there is no need to have any doubts for us. We will work on it and identify what we can do to develop our single market.
If YouGov is to be believed, more of this can only help the europhiles’ cause – although I doubt it will be enough to trigger them into the referendum call that both Kellner and Stephens advocate.