06/02/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

To Heed President Obama's Call to Strengthen the EU, Britain Must First Have a Referendum on Whether to Stay in at All

On his last visit to Britain, President Obama made it clear that he wanted to see Britain play its part in keeping the EU strong. But Britain has a problem with Europe and like Obama, most Americans don't get it. To some extent, this ambiguity goes to the heart of the ambiguity about the EU itself. What is it? Is it a colourless supranational body or an evolving twenty-first century global power?

Sometimes the European Union even behaves like it's trying to keep people confused. Its moves towards an EU defence force over the last decade have been halting. And its decision to appoint a president and foreign policy chief and then give the jobs to two small-time politicians who nobody had heard of before, was confusing.

In short, its behavior leaves many observers asking: how important is it really?

The true reason for the confusion is that us Europeans can't agree what we want the EU to be. If you picture the age-old dispute between the US federal government and the states, then imagine that the states each speak a different language, have their own histories sometimes stretching back thousands of years, and have frequently fought bloody wars - not least two which became the biggest two global conflicts of our planet's history - then you begin to get some idea of the challenge of European integration.

There are a band of heady Euro enthusiasts who see the current make-up of the EU as an imperfect stepping stone to a harmonious union, cooperating on ever more issues and pooling ever more sovereignty. Most countries who have joined in the last thirty years such as Spain, Portugal, Greece, and Poland, see membership as a badge of political maturity and a guarantor of future stability.

Then there are a band of 'Eurosceptics', who see the EU in terms roughly equivalent to how campaigners for states' rights see the federal government - as a threat to their country's national identity and pride. This is particularly true in Britain, the country I know best.

So what are the prospects for the President's call for a Britain which helps keep the EU strong?

On any measure, the answer does not look good. Over the last decade here, the political landscape has moved in a more Eurosceptic direction. Ten years ago, the ruling Labour party were considering joining the Euro, and the opposition Conservatives were split between Europhiles (as Euro-enthusiasts are called) and Eurosceptics. Now, there is no prospect of Britain joining the Euro in the medium-term, the Conservatives are both relatively united around euroscepticism and ahead in the polls, and more people are voting for the UK Independence Party (UKIP) - a party which campaigns for Britain to leave the EU -than ever before. In a few newspapers, the words 'EU', 'euro', and 'European' are practically insults.

Why? Part of the problem is that the debate on the pros and cons of EU membership has long been hamstrung by myths, misinformation, and mendacity. And without a healthy flow of facts and evidence, debate on this vital issue has become polluted with credulousness.

On one hand, europhiles barely acknowledge such extraordinary wastefulness as the European Parliament moving from Brussels to work in Strasbourg for one week every single month. On the other, UKIP disingenuously claims that 75% of British legislation comes from the EU. They do not say where they get the figure, but academic studies show that the figure was about 15% in the early nineties and has been closer to 9% since.

If Britain is to heed the President's call any time soon, it will need a bit of straight talk about Europe.

One way of doing this would be with a referendum on whether to stay in the EU. This is not on the agenda, but there is actually a good case for it.

Firstly, more Brits want to leave than ever before. Over the last fourteen years, the number wanting to loosen the UK's ties to the EU rose to over 50%. In a smaller survey for the BBC last year, a full 84% agreed that Britain should vote before transferring any more power to the EU.

Secondly, ever more Brits see the big parties' insistence on denying people a referendum as an arrogant denial of an important shift in public opinion. This, some argue, is why so many people vote for the anti-EU party UKIP in 2004.

Thirdly, there has only ever been one referendum on the issue in 1975, so nobody born after 1957 has ever had their say. And even those who voted to stay in 1975 did not realise what the subsequent cost in regulations on British business would be.

Nor is it hard to see the case which each party could make to its members on the benefits of a referendum. Labour can argue that focus on this issue would expose Tory splits and policy obfuscation on Europe, and their losing Eurosceptic ground to UKIP. The Conservatives can argue that the swing to Euroscpeticism could work to their benefit as Labour are associated with the ever less popular spectre of the EU in the public mind. UKIP will just be happy to have their referendum.

Europhile opponents of a referendum often argue that a Eurosceptic press would misrepresent the Europhile case. But if they believe that the facts and argument are on their side, this, surely, is an argument for more engagement, not less.

But perhaps most of all, a referendum would help Britain to have a better debate about Europe. There are good and bad arguments on both sides. The current lackluster debate allows myths and credulousness to dominate the argument. A referendum would expose them to proper scrutiny, sort the weak arguments from the strong, clear the air, and enable the country to decide what it wants to tell President Obama next time he asks what the UK is going to do to strengthen the EU's voice in the world.

Azeem Ibrahim is Research Scholar at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, Board Member of the Institute of Social Policy Understanding and the Chairman and CEO of Ibrahim Associates.