Token EU negotiations risk an indecisive Yes even a weak No

The FT published my letter on 17 January 2013 recommending the Government and the EU aim for material negotiations not the tokenism of 1975. The point being that even if substantive negotiations result in little change, they have more chance of being accepted in a referendum as a genuine effort and the end of the road.

Gideon Rachman’s view that a British referendum on Europe would “strongly resemble” the last one in 1975 and would be likely to produce the same result is flawed (“Don’t panic – Britain would vote to stay in the EU”, January 3). Does he really think that another token renegotiation will produce the same decisive Yes to Europe as it did in 1975 – a 67 per cent majority – a result that has carried a doubting nation through 40 years?

 Roy Jenkins, the senior cabinet member leading the Yes side, shuddered with embarrassment at the tokenism. But it worked as the hinge for a reversal in opinion partly because a sceptical public feared a No vote would trigger an economic crisis and partly because the blanket support of the media for staying in Europe made them unwilling to expose the charade. The idea that tokenism will again go unchallenged after 40 years’ experience of the EU isn’t tenable.

Mr Rachman also sets great store by the three main party leaders being on the Yes side – despite Europe being littered with examples where voters have rejected their elites in referendums. Even in 1975, in a more deferential age, opinion moved in favour of his “fruitcakes” on the No side. Because Yes started in the lead, with 74 per cent supporting renegotiation, it could afford a little erosion in support. There is no prospect of the next referendum starting with the same level of support for tokenism.

Given these differences, token negotiations risk an indecisive Yes even a weak No. The latter would have the negotiators scampering back to Brussels for the substantive negotiations they should have conducted in the first place and, of course, another referendum. There could hardly be a worse prospect, but the record shows it to be a typically EU approach to referendums.

 If the EU and Britain decide on renegotiation then it must be substantive in nature and transparent in process. This approach will also prove educative for the public so that, even if negotiations deliver little change, the referendum that follows will be honest and informed, and the consequences of a No vote clear.

Nigel Smith, Glasgow, UK