Ming speaks out on Euro referendum – “we must have a vote”

The Lib Dems have just issued a press release in which Ming Campbell has demanded in unequivocal terms a referendum on the UK’s position within the European Union. Here’s the full text:

Ahead of his Party Conference, which begins tomorrow, Liberal Democrat Leader Menzies Campbell, has called for the public to be given a real choice on the European Union.

Menzies Campbell said:

“It’s time for the political parties to end the shadow boxing on Europe and enter into an honest debate about the European Union.

“We will not know the final shape of the European Reform Treaty until later this year and that is the right time to make the judgement as to whether the changes it proposes necessitate a referendum. My own view is that in its present form the substantial differences between the draft Treaty and the old constitution mean that a referendum is not required.

“But I am not prepared to allow David Cameron to lead the Europhobes and their allies in sections of the media, to distort the debate on Europe without challenge.

“Fifteen years ago Liberal Democrats demanded a referendum on the Maastricht treaty which established the European Union, but the Conservative government refused it. Today David Cameron tries to pose as a champion of the people but in truth he wishes to restrict the British people to a choice on a narrow question about a treaty of far less significance. I don’t intend to let him get away with offering us such a false debate and such a false choice.

“If there is to be a referendum it shouldn’t be restricted to a comparatively minor treaty. It must be a decision about the EU as a whole. Let’s have an honest debate on the European Union followed by a real choice for the British people. That means a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. We would ask the British people the big question – whether to remain in the European Union or not.

“I will lead the Liberal Democrats at the forefront of that debate. We will make the overwhelming case for Europe and trust the people to make the right choice.”

This seems to me a positive statement, and interesting in two ways. First, that the party has been quick to try and head off an unnecessary row ahead of next week’s Brighton conference, rather than let any discontent rumble on.

And, secondly, that this might be one of the first instances in which the Lib Dem blogopshere has made a genuine impact on the party. Ming’s pre-conference interview in which he suggested a referendum was “not necessary” (while floating, but not committing to, the idea of a referendum on the EU) provoked a strong reaction, which perhaps took the party leadership by surprise.

Agree or disagree with what Ming says, but I’m glad to see him getting back on the front foot on this issue.

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30 Comments

  • Do Lib Dems ever actually think about what the effect of their policies would have if ennacted?

    A referendum on leaving Europe?

    Do you want to liquidate the city of London?

  • Is he making it up as he goes along?

  • This is absolutely right. It gets to the core of the issue – are we in Europe or out. Excellent announcement.

  • I think this is spot on.

    Its about time we had the discussion and in answer to Anon – Thats precisely the point that we need to get over

  • A good pro-active announcement, marking us out as different, distinctive and relevant.

  • I concur with the chorus, and wonder how accurate Stephen’s guess may be. Ming restating something a lot more strongly and making a damn fine point?

    Yes please. Let’s have the vote, let’s put the case, let’s put the issue to rest.

  • But Ed the point is that we supported a referendum on the original constitutional treaty and given that the revised treaty is essentially the same document we have to be consistent. For example, there are 105 areas of competence listed in the original treaty and the same number in the revised treaty. There were 61 areas of QMV in the original treaty and 62 in the revised version (stuff on climate has been added). Most people say it is 95% the same document, including Giscard D’Estaing who of course chaired the original Constitutional Convention. Whether we are pro or anti EU is not the point; it is about consistency. Ming has got this wrong.

  • The public demand has been a vote on the treaty, not EU membership.

    The public would much rather have a less deep relationship with the EU. We are denying them their say on that.

    If it’s going to be a vote essentially on accepting everything that comes from Brussels in future – which this in effect will be – or to leave, the vote will be to leave.

  • A referendum on continued EU membership would surely be won as convincingly as the 1975 referendum.

  • Sid (16) – The result of a referendum on EU membership is within the power of the UK Government to deliver 100% – we can stay in if there is a YES vote and we can leave if there is a NO vote. The outcome of a vote on the reform treaty is not within the UK Government’s power to deliver: how can the UK Government unilaterally change the nature of the EU?

    The British people may want a totally different relationship with the EU but remain a member. That however is not on the table. That is not an option that is open to them or the UK Government. The referendum proposed by Ming treats voters like grownups. It lays out the genuine options that they have and asks them to choose.

    Well done, Ming. Over to you, David and Gordon.

  • Dave (comment 20) – to be honest, it is a case of Europe: in or out? It is indeed that simple.

    The EU is not going to be some customs union or whatever it is that the Tories want. The choice is between being in Europe and having lots of compromise and dealmaking and having to put up with not getting 100% of what you want all the time – or getting out.

    Voters are grownups and they need to be treated like grownups. That’s the honest choice… so, do you want to be in, or do you want to be out? You decide.

    I suspect the reason some people, esp anti-Europeans, don’t like asking the people a fundamental question like this is because they fear that despite 30 years of tabloid screaming and lie after lie about Europe… after all that… the great British public will go out and back Europe. And all those Sun-reading pub bores will have to shut up for a few years.

    And, on your second point, (a) I don’t know, I don’t answer for Gordon Brown or the Labour party and (b) a vote on the EU as a whole is actually a bigger question and means giving the public more power – and that’s a good thing, not a bad thing.

  • I supported a vote on the treaty because I believed it was about time the country had a proper debate on Europe rather than the usual screaming Sun headlines.

    However the referendum on the whole issue of Europe is a much better idea as it will focus attention on the “Big” issue.

    The electorate could vote the treaty down in the same way as they like to give the government a good kicking at a by election without feeling any pain of the consequences. They won’t have that luxory in a referendum on a “We are In or Out” referendum

    and to answer someone elses criticsm re why we didn’t allow a referendum in Scotland….well in my opinion we got it wrong in Scotland

  • Paul Griffiths 16th Sep '07 - 9:31am

    Sure, it’s a mess. But the whole EU Constitution process has been a train wreck from the start anyway.

    I was always somewhat ambivalent about a referendum, my main concern being that, in the UK, whatever the referendum was ostensibly about, it would actually be about our fundamental relationship with the EU.

    It’s not that the British are incapable of coming to an informed decision about a treaty. Of course they could. It’s just that they think that scrutinising treaties is something they elect politicians for. And they’re right.

    In the UK at least, a referendum regarding the European Union could never be about the pros and cons of Clause 6 of Paragraph 9 of Schedule B. The river runs too deep for that. If we have a referendum at all, it has to be about the very idea of the European Union itself.

    A referendum on something calling itself a Constitution For Europe might have fulfilled that role, if only its framers had been able to produce something that didn’t require a degree in international law to digest. Sadly, the proposed Reform Treaty is even further off the mark. (What they should have done is write a “We the People” style Constitution, and then put all the dense legal stuff into the treaty implementing it. Alas, too late now.)

    The EU has been the elephant in the room of British politics for decades. In calling for a referendum, Ming is simply pointing it out. The party may or may not decide to adopt his suggestion (remember he can only propose, not impose) but, to paraphrase President Bartlet, nothing should be too sticky for a Liberal Democrat Conference.

  • Paul Griffiths 16th Sep '07 - 12:08pm

    Dave @ 25

    It’s possible that your post crossed mine in the ether but just in case it didn’t:

    I explicitly said that the British are capable of deciding on a treaty. My argument is that they won’t, because it’s not what they’re really interested in.

    Personally, I don’t believe the decision to offer a referendum on the Constitution was taken for principled reasons in the first place, so I don’t regard it as a denial of principle to refuse a referendum on the Reform Treaty. For my own part, I argue that the Constitution differs from the Treaty in that the former could (just about) have been used as a proxy for the referendum that the British actually want.

    Britain isn’t “other countries”. If you don’t think that the UK has a unique relationship with the EU project, you simply haven’t been paying attention.

  • Dave (25): as I have stated before somewhere on here, the reason that a referendum on a treaty is not an effective way for a people to help direct the EU is that it is hard to decipher the result.

    What I mean by that is this: say the Govt holds a vote on the Reform Treaty and the electorate votes “no”. Well, what in the treaty was so objectionable? No-one would know. So, what bits need renegotiating? No-one would know. How would that help the British people govern the direction of the EU, as you suggest? It wouldn’t.

    Has the new treaty been renegotiated to meet the demands of the French and Dutch electorates, as you suggest? I don’t know, and neither do you, because the “no” votes in those countries don’t actually provide us with a blueprint of what those people want from the EU. So, your belief that referendums on treaties empower people to govern the strategic direction of the EU is flawed and wrong.

    Plus, going back to the hypothetical UK referendum on the treaty and a hypothetical no vote: say the Govt can somehow magically work out what the people objected to so much with their no vote (let’s call that part of it, “Clause X”, for the sake of argument). It may go back to the other 26 Member States and tell them that Clause X needs to be renegotiated. But maybe we have accepted a less-than-perfect Clause X because other countries gave ground to us on Clause Y and Clause Z, which we really wanted. If we want to delete Clause X we may then face calls from other countries to have Clauses Y & Z withdrawn – so we’d lose what we wanted from the treaty.

    27 countries just cannot negotiate and draw up deals like that. It’s a nonsense.

    That stated, to answer your point on the euro: yes, I would have a referendum on the introduction of the euro because a subsequent decision to leave the euro would be so difficult to carry out. For that reason it would demand the consent of the electorate. The EU on the other hand is easy to leave. We could start the process tomorrow if we wanted to.

  • Dave – I am sorry, but how do you know that the French and the Dutch thought that the Constitution was too market-driven? Probably because you read about it in the papers. So, you want to put the power into the hands of the media. You want to put the power to interpret the result into the hands of the commentariat, not the people.

    That is the whole reason why a vote on a treaty is a crap idea. Why? Because the result is unclear. What are people objecting to, if they vote no? No-one knows – but of course the press will make up its mind and, as always, seek to dictate public policy. This is what happened in the case of France and the Netherlands.

    A vote on membership is clear: a yes vote means we stay in, a no vote means we leave. Easy-peasy, and leaves no room for spinning by either the press or politicians.

    On your specific question: I believe that the public will split into three groups – the majority probably won’t care either way; another group (mostly anti-European) will support the idea; and a final group (mostly pro-European) will be against because they fear defeat.

    I just don’t think that our streets will fill with placard-wielding protestors seething with anger at the fact that the LibDems are not offering a vote on a Constitution that no longer exists but instead are offering to place even greater power into their hands with a vote on a more fundamental question.

    And I shall now let you have the last word, Dave, as I don’t want this to last forever…

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