Opinion: Time for a U-turn on Lisbon Treaty

Let’s call a spade a spade: given the BNP electoral successes I think this is probably one of the most important things we can do in politics right now. Last night was not a good set of results for the Lib Dems; anything that places our national vote share behind Labour’s simply is not good enough.

Rather than do an exhaustive analysis I intend to do something novel, something that has not been done much during this electoral cycle, and focus on a European issue.

I remember one of the first blog posts that I wrote critical of a position Nick Clegg had taken was in support of the ‘Lisbon rebels’, who were cast out of front bench paradise for rebelling against the party line and voted for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. I tuned into the video that Nick Clegg has published in a bid to answer questions regarding Europe prior to polling. Frankly, I find his assertion that all proponents of a referendum are eurosceptics or ‘eurowreckers’ whose real agenda is to pull Britain out the EU slightly disingenuous; not least because I am in favour of a referendum but also a europhile.

It is because I am in favour of Europe, because I believe in the principle and ideal of Europe, that I support the idea of a referendum. I want to see the kind of Europe that is democratically accountable to its citizens and that more importantly they are given a stake in.

It is a sad comment by Clegg that a ‘No’ vote would change nothing; this is not how it should be, and this is not the kind of Europe we should want, that steamrollers ahead regardless of the wishes of its citizens. Yesterday. we saw a record low turn-out across Europe of 43%, and a major swing in favour of centre-right/right-wing eurosceptic parties. What does this tell us if not that Europe’s citizens feel disenfranchised and disillusioned with ‘their’ Europe?

What is our answer to this? Currently, Nick Clegg’s answer is to pay a reckless game of poker with our long-term national interest and call for a referendum on our entire membership of the European Union. However, this is a clear fudge and avoidance of a potentially sticky issue. Unquestionably this damaged us at the polls yesterday. We are neither here nor there, not committed to giving the people a say on this important document, and instead we have a crepe paper commitment to let people vent their spleen by throwing the baby out with the bathwater.

A referendum on the Lisbon Treaty would by its very nature bring the issues out into the open and allow for a fully informed debate in which pro-Europeans can shape the debate about the kind of Europe we want. It is a poor pro-European in my opinion who won’t allow it to happen and it only lends traction to the demagogic rantings of the likes of UKIP that a referendum is not allowed. It lends unnecessary weight to their argument that the EU is something distant, an imposition, an argument that we clearly saw last night carries weight with vast swathes of the electorate.

Clegg is right that there are many worthy reforms in the Treaty, the worth of which will be lost on people who will not be given a say in its adoption. We should change our position and support a referendum on the Treaty.

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This entry was posted in Europe / International and Op-eds.


  • Agreed. Referendum is required

  • Having a referendum on a treaty, any treaty, sets a bad constitutional precedent, and in any case, a ‘no’ result is ambiguous. If a ‘no’ result must lead to renegotiation of the treaty, what bits of it didn’t the voters like, and what was it that they didn’t like? At least an in/out result is fairly unambiguous.

  • aloadofoldstodge 8th Jun '09 - 5:14pm

    I’m afraid the damage has probably already been done. It was a serious strategic mistake by Nick and left us exposed to Cameron and allowed the Tories to come to a fairly united position.

    I disagree with Joe only inasmuch as I think giving a people a say on Lisbon and allowing the whole issue to be publically debated will defuse a lot of the heat in the debate.

    I’ve no doubt the “no” camp will spend big and probably win but at least a line will have been drawn.

    I also think Cameron will struggle to hold his more Eurosceptic line when in the conference chamber with Merkel, Sarkozy and Berlusconi.

  • passing tory 8th Jun '09 - 5:20pm


    and in any case, a ‘no’ result is ambiguous

    Spoken like a true Eurocrat, and precisely why Joe is being more than a little naive thinking that the Treaty is dead in the water.

  • I agree completely. I am a Eurosceptic; but if, in a fair Referendum, the people of Britain voted in favour of the Lisbon ConstiTreaty I would accept it.

    What I don’t accept is being denied the Referendum we were promised and being lied to by the Government so they could hand over large chunks of our sovereignty without a mandate.

    The EU will only be accepted by the people of Europe if it stops acting like a dictatorship and embraces a properly accountable Democracy.

  • Another Mark 8th Jun '09 - 5:40pm

    I presume that when Nick Clegg said a No vote would change nothing, he meant the EU would continue operating as it is at the moment under the existing treaties.

  • No. For a start, we had a referendum, in 1975. We voted overwhelmingly in favour of ever closer union (and it was made very very clear at the time that that was what it was about. Now the europhobes will tell you that they weren’t paying attention and they want it held again. We haven’t had a referendum on the monarchy, on reform of the house of lords, on whether the shops should open on a Sunday, or indeed, where I live, on anything else.

    Referendums are far to likely to turn into a vote on something else. Gordon Brown, for example, could not win a referendum on anything at the moment. We have parliamentary democracy. We should rely on that.

  • Lisbon is a fascination of the Westminster village – a u-turn on our policy would make us more consistent but nobody would care (apart from a few loony eurosceptics).

    Three parties who won in these elections: UKIP, the BNP and the English Democrats were all anti-immigrant (not to mention the tories).

    The issue of ‘immigrants stealing our jobs’ is alive and well and we aren’t addressing it either with a positive argument for immigration or a real analysis of the problems immigration causes and genuine solutions. It is an issue people care about – and importantly former Labour voters care about but it’s not being addressed in a meaningful way by any of the major parties. We should be making the case for immigration but not at the expense of local communities who often struggle to assimilate large numbers of immigrants, creating fear and a sense of injustice. These are real concerns and if we don’t address them then extremists will.

  • Referenda on all but the simplest of questions tend to be pointless because they don’t actually measure public opinion on the subject at hand. A referendum on EU membership is straightforward enough that the result would at least mean something.

    A referendum on Lisbon would mean what, exactly? If the result is “No” – is that No to the EU in general? No to one or more particular sections of the mammoth treaty document (if anyone even bothers to read it)? If so, which bits don’t people like? If people don’t like any of it, does that mean they’re happy with the status quo? Do they even know what the status quo is (I don’t and I’m more interested in politics than most)?

    It would just turn into a referendum on the national government and on whoever is PM at the time – like most referenda do. If Blair had held a referendum on joining the Euro in 1997, he could well have won on the back of his personal popularity – and if Gordon Brown held a referendum today asking “should the government give a free £10,000 cheque to every British citizen”, he’d probably lose. I was in France at the time of the “Non” vote a few years ago and can personally testify that all of my colleagues who voted No were just voting No to Chirac because they were fed up with him.

    Anyway, from a purely party-political strategy perspective, I think it would be a big mistake to revisit this – I don’t think most people care any more, it would just remind them of our previous (none-too-popular) position, and we’d end up looking silly. The rise in fringe party vote share yesterday was down to the recession, jobs and MPs expenses, not anything to do with Europe (much less Lisbon!).

  • I somehow doubt that ‘we had one in 1975 so we non’t need one now’ is going to wash with anyone younger than mid-50s, since that’s how old you’d have to be now to have voted in the last one.

  • Personally, I agree that’s pointless to revisit the Lisbon debacle, but I also hope the party drops this ‘in or out’ nonsense. It’s so clearly just a bit of insincere posturing that I can’t believe anyone thought it a good idea in the first place.

    The only way to make the EU anything other than a stone around the neck of the Lib Dems is for Clegg to go after EU reform with the same gusto that he’s shown towards Westminster reform of late.

  • Simon Courtenage 8th Jun '09 - 6:52pm

    I support the general view of this article. While I’m fully in favour of Britain being engaged and involved in Europe, I fail to see how anyone with liberal political views can support how EU democracy currently works. If we think that the UK executive is too powerful, how can we tolerate the EU commission? If the European Union is to work and enjoy the consent of European citizens, then it must become directly accountable to them, and, in my opinion, currently, it is not.

    This doesn’t make me a eurosceptic, though, but definitely, an euro-reformist.

    I disagree though that the BNP votes are votes against Europe. These votes are about national issues and economic decline in certain areas. The point was made on Radio 4 this afternoon that the BNP’s actual number of votes fell compared with 2004 – it was the collapse of the Labour vote that allowed the BNP, within the equations of the PR system, to win seats.

  • Simon Courtenage 8th Jun '09 - 6:53pm

    And just to add to my comment, I think the whole tenor of LIbDem policy on the EU has to change – to make reform of the democratic institutions of the EU a condition on any further deepening of involvement with it.

  • The real problem with anything to do with the EU is a perception that it is being driven by an isolated political class despite lack of any enthusiastic public support, and indeed in the teeth of democratically registered opposition – i.e. the Irish referendum charades. We should support a referendum on the treaty now, and offer a referendum on EU membership if and when we achieve power.

  • Harry Dienes 8th Jun '09 - 7:47pm

    Not only will the eurosceptics be able to spend big and simply these matters into ‘not one more inch of our soverignty to the EU’ type rubbish, but they have managed to dominate the debate thus far. The ‘in or out’ referendum will enable the pro-european to put the case for europe in clear way. The debate will be on they great advantages membership brings, and will force Cameron et alia to fly their flags. That is why in principle I support such a clear referendum. However I think this is very unlikely to happen. We will get a referendum on Lisbon though (Cameron will win). I don’t think it wise to bring up a change of policy. I can hear the accusations of ‘flip flop’ already…

    However I do think the lib dems should move the language of the debate to trying to clear up the EU waste. That is fair. Europe does need to reform (That the Lisbon treaty is the best way to do it…well hopefully that will be communicated). The problem of course is that the issue is not simple: we need to look for more democratic reforms and cut waste (which is real in europe, unlike westminster so much) – whilst pressing forward with the argument that europe is our best chance of working out solutions. Not clear cut ukip style slogans.

  • I think you’re utterly deluded if you think an ‘in or out’ referendum is winable. Be very careful what you wish for.

  • Roger Shade 8th Jun '09 - 8:21pm

    The electorate is not with us on the EU. They have been conditioned by the media to view the EU as an over bureaucratic, undemocratic organisation ruling over us. How many of them tell us on the doorsteps that they are not Europeans, they are British (what ever that is). Sadly I believe that only when the consequences of withdrawal become apparent, and that may only happen after we withdraw, will the British people wake up and realise that they have been duped.

  • Richard Church 9th Jun '09 - 8:38am

    Is I were Cameron I would be desperately hoping the Lisbon treaty was ratified before the general election. If not ratified and enacted, Cameron would have to have his referendum and get his ‘no’ vote.

    What does he do next? He can try and renegotiate it. He might get some changes, and call a second referendum, he might get nothing and Europe would be stuck with the same old out dated rules it has now. Paralysed from change by a Tory government. Any attempt to offer a renegotiated treaty would be picked apart by the anti-EU hardliners, and a Cameron government would end up in the just the same mess with the backbenchers that Major got into over Maastricht.

    A referendum on our continued membership of the EU confronts the Tories with the issue they will not face. Are they in favour of the EU or not?

  • There would be a strong national advantage if this matter was cleared up for a generation or more. There would also be a strong advantage to the EU.

    I agree with Richard and Jono, a referendum on a treaty is a bad precedent, though from time to time I do fantasise on the idea of a referendum on the international copyright laws. The nature of a treaty is a negotiated compromise, so there are always likely to be very many people who would prefer something better. It is a sure fire recipe for no agreement.

    For short term tactics it would have been more comfortable to support a referendum on Lisbon, but really a referendum on EU membership is closer to the proposed referendum on a constitution. The constitution effectively included other treaties (Nice, Amsterdam, Maastricht), that said, I agree that a NO to the constitution would not have nullified previous treaties.

    I do not think the referendum vote should have been whipped, Nick Clegg could have said that Liberals support a referendum on membership and that those MPs who felt that a referendum on Lisbon could be held and taken as just that were entitled to their views.

    A referendum would be a nightmare for Cameron. He could win a NO very easily, but then the onus would be on him to propose an alternative. This would also require a referendum and then he would have to try to sell it to the rest of Europe.

    It might prove useful to other countries though if they diverted criticism of stasis in Brussels to criticism of the UK.

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