Is Nick Clegg about to change position on an EU Referendum?

Europe Day - European Union - Some rights reserved by Niccolò CarantiToday’s Times reports that Nick Clegg may be about to change his position on the circumstances on which a referendum on EU membership could be held. The Coalition has legislated for a referendum if there is any further Treaty change. The Times (£) suggests that this could be altered to a “material change”:

Liberal Democrat MPs were due to meet last night to discuss whether to shift their position of holding a vote only if there is a “material change” in relations with Brussels.

The party’s near wipe-out in the European Parliament elections together with the prospect of a Commons vote on enshrining the 2017 EU referendum in law is forcing the rethink.

At least three Liberal Democrat ministers as well as other senior party sources are urging Mr Clegg to “bow to the inevitable”. The debate about the terms of Britain’s EU membership can only be settled by a vote, they say, and the Lib Dems should position themselves now at the head of the campaign to stay in.

A source close to the deputy prime minister refused to say whether the party was about to change its position. “We are not indifferent to the message the electorate have just sent us. We will make clear our position on the referendum bill in due course.”

The obvious caveat to this is that neither Nick Clegg nor our MPs can just merrily change policy on their own. The press haven’t yet got their heads round the democratic structure of our party. It doesn’t officially become policy until Conference votes on it. So what might Conference make of such a change?

Some people might feel that to go into a General Election looking like we’re denying people their say would just be an unnecessary negative. They will argue that a referendum is inevitable and we might as well be on the winning side of that argument and then campaign vigorously to stay in.

Others will feel that agreeing to a referendum just panders to the Eurosceptic herd when this issue features 18th on people’s list of priorities.

I’m in two minds. I was always relaxed about a referendum on Scottish independence. I thought it would be a good idea to get it out of the way and I was disappointed when we so vigorously opposed it in the 2007 election. It is and remains my view that we could have formed a successful coalition with the SNP in 2007 and might even have managed to regain control of the Justice portfolio which has been one of their biggest failings. Who knows, we might even have won a couple more seats in Scotland in the 2010 election and mitigated the awful result in 2011. Whether Gordon Brown’s Labour government would have been as amenable and co-operative as Michael Moore and the Liberal Democrats were in establishing the referendum process is doubtful, though.

On the other hand, I do wonder if we should be following the herd on this one. If anybody thinks that UKIP and the right wing of the Conservative party want to leave the EU to give the ordinary person in the street more rights in the workplace or human rights generally, they are kidding themselves.  David Cameron’s plan to renegotiate our relationship with the EU and then put that outcome to a referendum is most worrying because we would not have the chance to vote for anything other than his deal. We wouldn’t be able to say, actually, hang on a bit, I quite liked those employment rights that you sold down the river. Can we keep them, please? It would be Cameron’s package or out. If that’s not the choice between a rock and a hard place, I don’t know what is.

Most people would not put the EU as a high priority. Do we have to have referenda on the other 17 issues they consider more important as well? Do we have a referendum on membership of NATO and the UN? Why not on whether we have weapons of mass destruction?

If we have to have a referendum, should we just go for it and have a quick in/out poll very quickly after the 2015 election? Why wait until 2017? I know only too well what it’s like to have your entire polity dominated by a referendum for three and a half years.

If we are going to change our policy, I’d suggest that this is an issue on which we could not afford to go back on in any coalition negotiations or, for example, in a minority government situation. We would have to deliver. This would be a great pity, because there are so many other policies I would rather die in a ditch for.

Imagine a Labour minority government facing an attempt by the Conservatives to force an EU referendum? Would this be the issue on which we would bring them down?

There may be a “let’s get it out of the way” argument and I do believe that, ultimately, the arguments to remain in the EU would prevail, despite all the dirt that would be flung during the campaign. Would the Eurosceptics then shut up and accept the result? I’m not so sure. They’d want a neverendum. till they got their way.

The problem is that major treaty change is unlikely in the near future as the entire organisation deals with the rise of Euro-sceptic nationalism across so many member states. It could, of course, take the bull by the horns and reform itself. That would help secure its future.

What do you think? Stay as we are or shift our position?

* Caron Lindsay is Editor of Liberal Democrat Voice and blogs at Caron's Musings

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  • Jonathan Pile 18th Jun '14 - 1:53pm

    Thanks for the heads up Caron. I welcome some fresh thinking on this as our current position on a referendum looked stupid when Nick expressed it in the Farage debate – ie Yes to a referendum in the past, Yes to a referendum in the future (if there is a change) but no to one now. It shows the desperation in the Clegg corner over policy and frankly so close on the heels of the Farage debate looks like a humiliation for Clegg and admission of defeat on the referendum issue. That’s the way UKIP and the Tories will paint it. The moment Nick challenged Farage to debate – he was also saying lets bring this to a vote. ( I wish he would say the same thing about his leadership!)
    I have one caveat, this would leave Labour holding the line on not holding a referendum and undermine that position which would guarantee a vote in 2017 whoever wins in 2015.
    If we are casting around for policy u-turns – I would put Tuition fees and HS2 at the top of the list. Since changing course on the referendum is not going to be a key issue in the General Election – perhaps it would have been a better decision to take in January 2014 ahead of the Euro Elections. A new leader won’t make this calamitous mistakes – better to be ahead of the agenda rather than always behind the curve. 3 things for the party to ditch, CLEGG, TUITION FEES & HS2 – Watch us soar in the polls then!

  • I don’t support a referendum myself, but recognise that it’s a position held by 12% in polls, and think we should change tack; it’s simply inevitable now. The campaign for an EU referendum has become so mainstream that it’s dominating debate of serious issues. I believe that a referendum is winnable, but that it’ll be easier to win the sooner we have it. The poisonous politics of UKIP should be in decline afterwards, and just imagine how the Tories will split when it comes to in or out, with no waffle about renegotiation to hid behind. It’ll be brutal.

    For me, the main argument against is that our current policy gives us a great negotiating platform with the Tories in discussions next year. The Tory party would refuse any agreement without this referendum, and Cameron would be sacked as leader if he tried, so we’d get something big in return the Tories don’t want. I’d choose a referendum on scrapping Trident, but a full mansion tax, proper Lords reform or drug law reform would be reasonable trades. So I wouldn’t go public on anything now, but make noises that there’s a deal to be done at the right price.

  • Stewart Rayment 18th Jun '14 - 1:55pm

    I live in a Tory/Labour marginal where our vote would be squeezed irrespective of the Coalition. My business is almost entirely dominated by the EU. The only thing that would make me vote for a weak Labour candidate would be a No Referendum commitment.

  • John Tracey 18th Jun '14 - 2:19pm

    I would love for the Lib Dems to do this and mean it. Personally, I feel at home with the Lib Dems on almost all issues aside from Europe. In last months elections, I had thought that I would vote Lib Dem, but the huge ‘party of IN’ thing turned me right off.

    If this is to happen, it needs to be THIS side of the election. They should support private memb ers bill or allow it to become government policy. As there is form on not delivering a referendum after an election stated before the election, this will sort that out. Otherwise Labour can go on about ‘we have had their promises before, remember fees and this same pledge’.

    But the Lib Dems must be very careful. There must be no more broken promises, or 6-10% in polls will look like a great success when they go down further.

  • Now, now guys and gals, steady!!!!

    You want to be a party of principle, then stick by your no surrender on an In/Out referendum. There is years of life left in that wall to smash your head against in defying the public mood, and the right to vote on whether they should determine who controls our borders.

    Don’t kid yourselves that you will be able to sell this as a none issue 100th or whatever on the list of peoples concerns, how far down the list was the AV referendum I wonder, but it didn’t stop you forcing it to the top of the pile for party reasons.

    Be in no doubt, any referendum will be about immigration because UKIP will make it so, and any attempt by your party or Labour to try and sell it on workers rights or any other non immigration minor detail is pie in the sky on your part, and will go down as quickly as Clegg did against Farage.

    UKIP will ensure the campaign up to any referendum will be immigration, Immigration, IMMIGRATION. To be honest you should really cut out all the mealy mouthed waffling trying to justify your giant panic stricken ‘U’ turn, and ask yourselves, do you want to campaign on an In/Out referendum defending unlimited immigration for the IN side, I seriously hope you do, nothing is more certain to put the final nail in your coffin.

  • Stephen Howse 18th Jun '14 - 2:33pm

    Joe – you’re right on uncertainty, business confidence and the increased investment and exporting resulting from it is underpinned by stability.

    However… what’s more stabilising than “we will not have a referendum and will keep Britain in the European Union”? I actually think that gives a stronger basis for the reforms we need than Cameron’s “reform first, referendum later” approach – why would the EU go through that process just for Britain to up and leave anyway?

    I am no starry-eyed EUphile and do not believe we should commit to remain within the EU at all costs if it is not serving our national interest but at the moment I don’t think a referendum will do us any favours.

  • Commitment to a referendum is at least as dangerous as the tuition fees pledge. The formula that there should be a referendum in the event of major change is risky enough: treaties are the result of complex negotiation often conflating a number of issues. Referendums tend to focus firstly on whoever is putting the question and/or the popularity of the government of the day and secondly on simple binary issues.

    Governments working together need to be able to compromise, but compromise is not well addressed by referendums.

    An EU climate environment treaty, for example, could well be a complex balancing act of the needs of individual states and an overall need to deal with pressing environmental issues; undoubtedly it could contain several unpopular elements, which could be easily be exploited by simplistic denials of the problems that need to be addressed. Whilst a negative referendum in any one of the member countries could destroy all the work on the negotiations, the problems that the treaty was trying to address would only get worse.

    If Cameron gets in next election, he will face insuperable problems in 2017: the election cycles in both the UK and in other EU countries will be against him; in reality scope for his much touted renegotiation will be limited and whatever he does achieve is more likely to alienate EU supporters than manage to assuage the numerous ultras in his own party.

    There is a naive assumption that a referendum will put the matter to bed. This would only happen if the result is overwhelmingly decisive. A 53%/47% split or narrower either way would inflame the issue but resolve nothing.

  • A referendum on scrapping Trident?! Are you serious, tpfkar? Have you learnt nothing at all from the AV vote? Or from 4 years of botched coalition handling?

  • Please don’t let the Libdems be so stupid. We’ve already had one referendum to prove that they don’t settle anything and the europhobes will be straight back saying they didn’t read the question, or they’ve changed their mind, or they thought they were voting for something else. The referendum question should die with Cameron’s prime ministership and the conservatives’ hopes of a role in government.

  • We need to have a referendum and get the whole question out of the way one way or the other. I am a Europhile but it will not be the end of the world if we voted OUT, cost of imports from the EEC would go up and we would be charged duties on goods into the EEC but there you go. We would survive. But the British public are very sensible and when it comes to the crunch I am sure they will vote to stay. That should shut the right wing of the Tories and UKIP up.

  • The views of the public, Don’t know the Don’t know figures
    “Latest Ipsos MORI “Should be dumped before GE15?”
    Cameron 27%
    Clegg 44%
    EdM 49%”

  • I think that referenda undermine parliamentary government, and only serve as a poor figleaf to obscure the politicians’ unwillingness to take responsibility for their decisions.

  • Helen Tedcastle 18th Jun '14 - 3:43pm

    @ James King

    ” Time to seize the moment and show that we are indeed the party of IN.”

    Of course, the party if IN campaign went so well in recent elections when we lost 10 out of 11 MEPs!

    My instinct is that we only urge a referendum if there is a proposed treaty change ie: stick to our policy of offering a referendum on a substantial treaty change. If we move towards Cameron’s position, we will be subsumed by the Tories again.

    I don’t think there is sufficient evidence to prove that the British people want to leave the EU. Yes, they used UKIP as a protest vote and yes, they are worried/fearful about immigration but the last thing a liberal party should do is pander to fear and populism.

    We should urge reform of the EU but not Cameron’s reforms and propose a package of our own. In other words, we should stick to our policy but present it differently – we are the reformers not Cameron and certainly not UKIP.

    The party of In presentation is too simplistic for the debate ahead. We are the party of reform but we are also the party of openness and partnership with our neighbours.

  • jedibeeftrix 18th Jun '14 - 3:49pm

    ” I do wonder if we should be following the herd on this one. If anybody thinks that UKIP and the right wing of the Conservative party want to leave the EU to give the ordinary person in the street more rights in the workplace or human rights generally, they are kidding themselves”

    Is that a roundabout way of f saying you are hoping the EU can be relied upon to impose upon Britain a level or regulation that the people themselves would not vote for at the ballot box?

    Interesting, caron…

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Jun '14 - 3:53pm

    theakes18th Jun ’14 – 3:23pm

    I hadn’t thought about it in the way of lancing the UKIP boil, interesting. But think it could turn septic of its own accord once the GE shines a strong light on them … leaving them as a long term irritation in the side of the Tories. On balance though, I think allowing the electorate to decide is the right thing to do.

  • Stephen Hesketh 18th Jun '14 - 3:58pm

    Some interesting splits in our normal positions!

    One of the biggest problems we have with mature democracy in this country is our ‘free press’ and their agenda.

  • David Evershed 18th Jun '14 - 4:04pm

    Our current Lib Dem position is illogical.

    In the event of a proposal to tranfer more powers to the EU we supported a bill that there should be an IN/OUT referendum. However, in such a referendum, a person who wants the status quo would have to vote to leave the EU to prevent the transfer of more powers to the EU.

    Any IN/OUT referendum has to be based on existing arrangements at the time and separate from any proposed change in powers between the EU and rge UK.

  • Kevin White 18th Jun '14 - 4:05pm

    Once again Clegg just comes across as floundering without a clue. He couldn’t lead a fight out of a chipbag.

  • Of course, the party used to believe in an in/out referendum so strongly that it walked out of the House of Commons when it wasn’t allowed to vote for one. But really it was just Clegg’s gimmick to evade the issue of a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and pick up a few Eurosceptic votes.

    Then after that the party was strongly against an in/out referendum. Earlier this year Clegg staked everything on being “the party of in” and lost.

    Now, with his leadership under threat, apparently Clegg is going to give the in/out gimmick another try.

    Is this really “grown up politics”?

  • While UKIP topped the european election poll in the rUK, an openly pro-EU, and pro-immigration party topped the poll in Scotland. This whole debate once again raises the spectre of Scotland being dragged out of the EU against her will simply because of being shackled to a Westminster dancing to UKIP’s tune.

    With Nick Clegg joining the rest of the Westminster elite by singing from UKIP’s hymnsheet, the message is clear. Membership of the EU is another key Scottish Liberal Democrat policy that can only be safeguarded by a YES vote. Only a YES vote in September’s referendum can ensure that Scotland’s future in the EU and the terms of her membership are in Scotland’s hands.

  • In my opinion it is not following a herd allowing people a referendum on the EU some say far more important things for us to worry about maybe however the EU issue will not go away fight for a referendum march 2015 get it and Ukip out of the way and win some seats

    I stand by to be screamed down but be honest at some point we will join the Euro currency some countries will stay out of the main world blocks though I doubt the UK will be one of them

    The whole lets renegotiate point is bordering on stupid even if we are told points have been won no one will believe it how long was it before the coalition said we have reduced energy before people knew that energy had gone up.

    If we are going to stay in sooner is better than later for getting it out the way, labour even said they don’t want Junker so good timing all round

  • How odd that Clegg who has refused to step aside so that the members of his party can have a referendum on the leadership of the party is considering a referendum for Europe.

    There is a long list of Clegg errors on Europe — the Farage debates, the loss of 11 MEPs, the bad decision to centre the entire campaign on Clegg , the bizarre move by Clegg alone to try and undermine the ALDE decision on who to support for President of the Commission , the. Bizarre decision after the election to do Cameron’s dirty work to try and undermine Juncker.

    Given Clegg’s recent track record on Europe it would be a brave person who would trust his judgement.

  • ………’AV referendum I wonder, but it didn’t stop you forcing it to the top of the pile for party reasons.,,,,,’
    Strange as the First Past the Post could leave the Lib Dems with more MPS in 2015…than under AV??????????
    Although not a Lib Dem member…. PR is & has always been about fairness for the LIB DEMs …you may not like it…. but that’s how it is….

  • When & if people feel better off …. ‘its the economy stupid’…….. the EU issue will die down, because they (talking generally) wont feel those nasty foreigners are taking their jobs, houses etc etc

  • David Evershed: I can see why it might seem illogical to you, but you are wrong. The point is that the EU has to be able to adapt, evolve and move on. The last thing that is needed is for any one of 28 states to block any change. Change would be the product of detailed negotiation with closely argued compromises. When there has been give and take all round, it is untenable for one state to say ‘I’ll just take thank you’.

    If any state is not prepared to move on then it is entirely logical for it to pull out.

  • We need a referendum to lance the boil for a generation. It will be won by the young Europeans, not the Victor Meldrew UKIP types. Trust the people and be on their side. That is the Lib Dem mantra.

  • jedibeeftrix 18th Jun '14 - 11:07pm

    Are the old no longer people?

  • A u-turn on an EU referendum will ensure Clegg can roll over for a tummy tickle by Cameron in the event of another hung Parliament.

    You can’t seriously believe Clegg is thinking of changing his no-referendum policy for any other reason ?!

    Think about it: hung Parliament, Cameron wants referendum, Miliband says he doesn’t, LDs have spent 5 yrs propping up Cameron to the detriment of the party & crucially, another coalition with the Cons would give Clegg another 5 yrs in the comfy seat – perfect from his point of view, just perfect !

  • David Evans 22nd Jun '14 - 1:14pm

    The problem with all this debate is that our position on an EU referendum has been all over the place since Nick Clegg became leader. Going into the 2005 Election, under Ming Campbell’s leadership, our manifesto was very clear.
    Membership of the EU has been hugely important for British jobs, environmental protection, equality rights, and Britain’s place in the world. But with enlargement to twenty-five member states, the EU needs reform to become more efficient and more accountable. The new constitution helps to achieve this by improving EU coherence, strengthening the powers of the elected European Parliament compared with the Council of Ministers, allowing proper oversight of the unelected Commission, and enhancing the role of national parliaments. It also more clearly defines and limits the powers of the EU, reflecting diversity and preventing overcentralisation.
    We are therefore clear in our support for the constitution, which we believe is in Britain’s interest – but ratification must be subject to a referendum of the British people.

    Thus we were saying that the EU enlargement meant that a new constitution was needed, and we would have support a referendum on this constitution. Of course a new constitution was being developed at the time for this purpose.

    What happened subsequently was that referenda had to be held in many EU countries to ratify the new constitution and France and Holland rejected it, most others then cancelled their referenda. This was the most fundamental threat to the EU project in many years. As a result the EU hierarchy had to find an alternative way to implement the changes needed and the mechanism chosen was a typical example of pure Sir Humphrey. What happened was that places were found to put the changes in different documents, giving the Charter of Fundamental Rights of the European Union a legally binding status, amending the Treaty of Rome itself, and only making amendments to the constitution. Thus crucially the changes were not called a new constitution and could be spun as not needing referenda.

    This sleight of hand got the EU off the hook in France, Holland and elsewhere, as a referendum was only needed in Eire. This opportunity to avoid a referendum was also seized on by the Gordon Brown, the new Labour party leader and by Nick Clegg the new Lib Dem leader, who ensured that the party in parliament was required to abstain when it was debated in parliament. To their credit, three Lib Dem front benchers, Alistair Carmichael, Tim Farron and David Heath, recognised this for the sleight of hand it was and voted for a referendum. As a result they were required to stand down from Nick Clegg’s cabinet. However the vote was lost.

    Thus Nick, surely the ultimate Europhile, achieved his aim of avoiding any chance of the UK rejecting the treaty, but sowed the seed for the continued growth of UKIP, which led to the debacle in May this year.

  • Roger Heape 23rd Jun '14 - 8:11am

    Debating changing our EU referendum position from a referendum if there are Treaty changes to having one if there are material changes is a waste of breath.Talk about fiddling whilst Rome burns!
    Yes w e should change our position. to supporting a democratic in/out referendum- no ifs no buts.Why ?Because it is a simple clear policy which chimes with our support for staying in Europe.
    It may not gain us many votes but at least it shifts from further damage for being seen to be against the public tide by blocking a referendum.

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