The EU Referendum, Sir William Cash declared during the passage of the Bill providing for it through the Commons, is of fundamental importance to the future of this country over the next generation and more.That is why Liberal Democrats have been arguing, regardless of the broader issue of lowering the voting age, that on this occasion 16- and 17-year-olds should be allowed to vote. We agree with Eurosceptics like Bill Cash that this is a vital, long-term decision; so those that have the longest stake in the future of this country should not be denied a say.
The Bill has now passed through the Commons, and has its second reading in the Lords today. Liberal Democrats will be putting down amendments on a number of issues in addition to votes at sixteen. We support extending the franchise for the referendum to UK citizens who have been living and working elsewhere within the EU for more than 15 years, which is the current cut-off for non-resident voters. We will also be putting down an amendment to allow EU citizens who have become long-term residents within the UK to vote in the referendum; they already have the right to vote in local and European elections here, so in many cases are already on the register.
UKIP and Migration Watch see the 2 million-plus British residents who are citizens of other EU states as a threat. We see the 300,000 French, 200,000 Germans, 50,000 Dutch, 750,000 Poles and others estimated to be living and working here as assets to our economy and society. The Daily Mail caricature of EU workers in the UK as under-cutting UK jobs by the highly-paid Italians, Germans and French who work in the City of London, the skilled Poles in the building industry, the Spanish and Portuguese nurses who have filled gaps in the NHS workforce.
Around the Bill, preliminary skirmishes in the referendum campaign are taking place. Eurosceptics in the Commons have attacked the BBC for its alleged ‘bias’. They would evidently prefer a Fox News approach to foreign countries, and regret that the existence of the BBC keeps Sky News honest. The argument about ‘purdah’ – the campaign period during which ministers and civil servants will not be allowed to make ‘political’ interventions – cuts across the necessity of the government continuing to work with other EU states, to take part in meetings in Brussels and elsewhere, and continue to put forward British interests to others.
Much of this is shadow-boxing. Cameron is going through a process of negotiation, but there is no way that whatever package he gains will satisfy the anti-Europeans. They see the EU as a monster, sucking British sovereignty across the Channel. They passionately believe that Britain would regain its ‘freedom’ if it were to leave, not recognising that regulations flow from Washington as well as from Brussels and that openness to foreign investment and ownership has long since compromised British sovereignty beyond recall. Their aim in the EU Referendum Bill is to reshape the rules to favour their side. Ours, of course, is to ensure that the rules remain well-balanced, and that all those with a strong stake in the outcome have their say.
* Lord Wallace of Saltaire is a Liberal Democrat member of the House of Lords.