A referendum on Britain in Europe: what role for the voluntary sector?

Now that the dust is beginning to settle upon the general election, two key challenges are perceived to face the prime minister: devolution and Britain’s future role in, or membership of, the European Union.

Both are difficult. I think both have implications for voluntary organisations.

The devolution challenge critically includes what further powers to cede to administrations in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. It is also about a new settlement for England, with likely different solutions in different places. This is unlikely to be a period for those wishing to tidy up our administrative landscape.

If devolution is about ceding power downwards, then our future relationship with Europe is about taking power back from above. After all, the national parliament has to be left with something to do if some of its power is to be devolved. Again, this is a challenge, this time in terms of content, timing and politics. Arguments are currently being heard for bringing forward the timing of any referendum on membership, in order to avoid a prolonged period of uncertainty. But is this at the risk of a considered, wide ranging debate on the future of Britain in Europe? And what, if any, role should voluntary organisations play in that debate? With a referendum now seemingly going to be held in 2016, there isn’t a huge amount of time to prepare.

A referendum on what?

This is particularly prescient as, currently, it is not particularly clear on what a changed relationship with Europe would look like: in other words, a referendum on what? Is it just the EU, or is it also our recognition of the European Convention of Human Rights? We understand that the government now wish to renegotiate Britain’s relationship with Europe, but I don’t think I have yet read anything that spells out what needs to change, what powers need be returned, what reform of European institutions is necessary. And even in the event of a successful renegotiation, have the public had sufficient opportunity for an informed debate on what must surely be the single biggest decision the country would make in most people’s lifetimes?

I think not. It may well be the case that constitutional affairs and Brussels are of interest only to policy wonks and political obsessives; but such matters are too important to be left to politicians or think tanks alone. I believe that the call for a constitutional convention, involving citizens and civil society more broadly, is correct. NCVO has added its voice to the proposals led by the Electoral Reform Society. As always in these situations I would hope that civil society plays a role in hosting, informing and facilitating debate. This is particularly the case on the issue of Europe, where opinions are sharply divided and where the debate is often characterised by more heat than light. Civil society as a space where opposing views can be debated has never been more important.

Pros and cons for the voluntary sector

We have already contributed to debates on Britain’s role in Europe, something I believe we need to build upon. The last government undertook a ‘balance of competencies’ review of the respective powers of Brussels and London, covering some 32 different policy areas. NCVO contributed to this review (with submissions on cohesion, state aid, the internal market and public procurement), but the focus was rightly on government responsibilities. I believe that we need a similar kind of analysis for the voluntary sector in particular, so NCVO will be producing its own costs and benefits review for the sector. This will look at the areas where voluntary organisations benefit or otherwise as a result of Britain’s membership of the EU, ranging from the value of programmes such as European structural and investment funds, to the impact of regulation.

I understand that quantifying costs and benefits in many areas will be difficult, but such an analysis will I hope provide a template for discussion, as well as informing NCVO’s own trustees and also those of our members, when appraising the impact of a referendum decision either way. NCVO will publish this review this autumn, well in time for even a fast-forwarded referendum in 2016.

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My experience of Europe

My personal experience of working in Europe is that the institutions are in need of reform: we outlined our thinking in NCVO’s manifesto for the last European elections, and I think that the need for reform remains relevant if the EU is to uphold the confidence of civil society and the public more generally. For example, we argued that decision making in European institutions needs to be more transparent, with more emphasis on citizen engagement. We also argued that EU rules in areas such as state aid are well meaning but in practice an obstacle to public benefit. Any forthcoming renegotiation and referendum is an opportunity to press for reform in institutions, so I am keen that we identify and then press for change on issues pertinent to civil society.

Please give us your views

I hope that voluntary organisations would be able to feed in their experience of Europe and its institutions into the national debate that we will no doubt soon have. This will help voters make an informed debate on our future role and membership. If you have views, please let me know in the comments below.


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Sir Stuart Etherington was chief executive of NCVO from 1994 to 2019.

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