“I expect an EU referendum in Britain in the next five years”, Interview with Simon Hix

This week the elections for the European Parliament will be held and according to Professor Simon Hix they are already far more European than any previous elections.

UNITEE spoke to the British professor about Britain’s relationship with Europe, the rise in Euroscepticism, and how to re-engage people in politics.

Following his debates with Nigel Farage, Nick Clegg said he was never going to reverse 20 years of myth making about the EU in two hours. How difficult is it for a Brit to argue in favour of the European Union?

There has not been a referendum on the European project since we acceded in the 1970s and ever since the 1980s Britain’s relationship with Europe has been rather difficult. Then Tony Blair came along who promised to be the most pro-European government in history, but he turned out to be little different from the Conservatives.

The problem is that when Britain acceded, it became part of a free trade area and now, through various treaties, it suddenly finds itself in a political union without its citizens having had a chance to vote on the matter.

In recent years we have had more and more referendums in Britain. We had referendums on devolution to Scotland and Wales, on changing the voting system, and this year we will have one on Scottish independence. So our democracy has changed and it has become more common to consult the public on big constitutional changes.

All major political parties in Britain have now committed to a referendum on the EU: the Conservatives want an in/out referendum, Labour will hold one with the next treaty change that transfers more powers to Brussels and Miliband has said it will be an in/out referendum, and the Liberal Democrats will also propose a public vote with a treaty change though this will not be an in/out referendum.

I expect there to be a referendum on EU membership in Britain in the next five years. It will be a good thing to consult the British public on this matter. Of course, I would be sad if Britain decided to leave the EU and I would campaign against it, but at the same time I think it might be important to resolve the issue for at least the next 20 years.

Euroscepticism seems to be on the rise in Europe. Is there a way to reverse this trend?

I think in many countries people are voting for right-wing or extreme left-wing parties because there is no clear distinction between the mainstream parties. Centre-left parties are nowadays in favour of a market economy, whereas centre-right parties also support social security.

So, the differences between mainstream parties are not as big as they used to be. In addition, voters are not as loyal to a single party anymore and party membership is declining. This creates an opening for parties that take a more extreme stand on various issues.

Front National in France, Wilders in the Netherlands, Ukip in Britain: they all say things that are completely different from what the mainstream parties are saying.

If you look at the polls, Ukip now has about 10 to 15 per cent of the votes. This may not be a lot but it does steal them from the Conservatives and could therefore prove crucial in the elections. Every vote for Ukip is one less vote for the Conservatives.

You are the author of many books on EU politics, including one entitled ‘What’s wrong with the EU and how to fix it.’ Which are the most essential reforms you would like to see at the European level?

I’m in favour of the election of a Commission President, although I am a bit disappointed with the choices for Schulz, Juncker, and Verhofstadt. I think they are too much embedded in the Brussels bubble and there is little difference between them.

There was a debate on French television between Juncker and Schulz and I can imagine that French voters were thinking: ‘I don’t get it. They’re the same.’ We need a more pluralist debate.

We also should have had referendums when it involved fundamental treaty changes and constitutional reforms. The public needs to be consulted, otherwise why would they participate if you can’t even vote against it?

The European Stability Mechanism, the Fiscal Compact, the new provisions coordinating national macroeconomic policies, and the banking union constitute a really fundamental change in the design of the economic and monetary union.

We are in a democratic society and this new architecture that has been put together is the kind of thing that should be put to the public.

We are now at a really critical juncture in the development of Europe. If this stopgap goes ahead with a deeper economic and monetary union and a deeper political union without public support, this could be critical for the future of the EU. I really worry about that.

Turnout rates at European elections have consistently decreased between 1979 and 2009. How could EU citizens become more engaged in EU politics?

I think these European elections will be far more European than any previous elections. There has already been between two and five times more coverage than there was five years ago.

This is to do with the failure of European issues at the moment: the Eurozone crisis, the arguments about European integration and migration. But it is healthy that there is now a public consciousness and debate about these things.

I’m hoping that after these elections we will look back and say: ‘Wow. Yes, these are still in many ways national elections about national politicians, but they were more European than they have been before.’ This takes a while. Young Europeans are very impatient. They want European democracy now, but it does not happen like this. It is a slow process.

We need to start building up this process with the growth of social media. This is a new way for younger voters to participate in politics. I don’t think it is true that they are not motivated by politics when you see their overwhelming political activism online.

Young people are bored of establishment politics, mainstream political parties, party manifestos, the ten o’clock news on TV, the editorials in the mainstream newspapers. I mean, gosh, that is boring stuff.

We need to think about how to reinvigorate politics and younger voters are doing that through social media. So, there is a new arena where European politics could start to be built, cutting across the established media and the established political parties. It takes time, but I believe it will gradually evolve in that way.

Do you think we should go towards a European wide constituency?

I don’t think we should go towards a system in which people can vote across national lines. We should try to have European elections where we have smaller electoral districts. The idea that we should have a European wide constituency is popular in Germany, but I don’t buy that.

What we need to do is break the control of national political parties and there is plenty of evidence that this has started to happen in countries where we have relatively small electoral areas with open lists of preferential voting, such as Ireland, Finland and Estonia.

If Germany, Britain and France would have smaller electoral districts with open preferential voting, then the individual candidates themselves will start to campaign directly with the voters.

This will build a connection with the people they represent and these people will see which MEPs they are voting for.

SimonHixSimon Hix is a Professor of European and Comparative Politics and Head of the Department of Government at the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Hix is also the Chair and co-founder of Votewatch Europe and played an important part in the development of its website electio2014.eu, which was created to help people decide who to vote for in the upcoming European elections.


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