Opinion: Who’s going to give us a good reason to oppose an EU Reform Treaty referendum?

Those with long political memories (ie, longer than a week) may recall the kerfuffle prior to the Lib Dem conference prompted by Ming Campbell’s statement that he would oppose Tory attempts to hold a referendum on the proposed new EU reform treaty. It was, he argued, “not necessary”, as the treaty bears scant resemblance to the constitution it replaced.

A number of bloggers (and I was one of them) criticised Ming for seeming to side too readily with those who run away from a healthy debate on Europe. Ming swiftly strengthened his statement, and called instead for an early referendum on the much bigger question: does Britain want in or out?

That went a long way to placing the Lib Dems on the right side of the debate: in favour of giving the public their say on the future direction of the European Union, 32 years after the UK voted to join the Common Market. But there was always one loose end.

Some time soon, the Tories will call vote in the House of Commons on whether Britain should hold a referendum, at which point 63 Lib Dem MPs will have to make a decision – to march through the ‘no’ lobbies with Labour against a referendum; or through the ‘aye’ lobbies with the Tories in favour of one. I doubt I’m alone in feeling queasy at the former prospect.

However, that is what will happen regardless of the result of the leadership contest. Both Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg gave their full support to Ming’s statement during the Brighton conference; and have re-stated their opposition to a referendum on the treaty since the start of the leadership election.

By chance, I came across an article Nick Clegg wrote for The Guardian just over four years ago entitled, ‘We need an EU referendum: nothing will damage the pro-European movement more than appearing to have something to hide’. Now Nick was talking about the EU constitution, and his words should be read in that context, but it’s still worthy of note:

The real reason, of course, why the government does not want to hold a referendum is the fear that it may lose. … It is the same fear which has long restrained New Labour from expressing the courage of its meagre convictions on Europe. And it won’t do.

The alternative, now unfolding before us, is infinitely worse: a false assumption that anti-Europeans are democrats, and pro-Europeans are not. By shilly shallying with semantic half-truths about the content of the constitution, and now haughtily dismissing all calls for a referendum, it is New Labour which is, to cite my friend, “playing straight into the hands of the Eurosceptics”. By providing the hapless Iain Duncan Smith with a pretext to champion people’s democracy, Blair is unwittingly doing more to reinvigorate Euroscepticism than John Redwood could manage in his wildest fantasies. Nothing will do more damage to the pro-European movement than giving room to the suspicion that we have something to hide, that we do not have the “cojones” to carry our argument to the people.

And what of the above – bar the references to Blair and IDS [who they? – Ed.] could not be said of the current debate?

But what’s more interesting is what comes next, when Nick describes the contents of the constitution – sure, he argues, it’s not a whole lot of nothing. But when people find out the detail they’ll probably be more bored than outraged:

And our argument is strong. The constitution, assuming it emerges roughly in its present draft form, provides ideal ammunition to call the Europhobes’ bluff. While it is no mere “tidying up exercise”, it is galaxies away from the “blueprint for tyranny” laughably paraded by the Daily Mail. … Far from being a Napoleonic plot to overturn centuries of plucky British autonomy, it represents a logical evolution in EU governance. …

The measured modesty of the constitution is precisely what is being obscured by the government’s refusal to hold a referendum. In doing so, it has allowed the phobes to shift the argument away from the constitution itself and onto shriller claims about the democratic legitimacy of the whole EU. By forcing the phobes to argue on the substance of the text, a referendum would expose the hollow hysteria of their polemic. Naive? Perhaps, a little. Inevitably, any referendum campaign is unlikely to be a scholarly examination of the legal content of a complex constitutional tome. It is possible that it will soon escalate into an unconstrained debate about the very place of Britain in the EU – in or out. So be it.

And there we have it. What Nick wrote then about the EU constitution applies just as much to the EU reform treaty today. But, back in 2003, Nick Clegg MEP was arguing that we should not run away from a referendum-by-proxy; in 2007, Nick Clegg MP argues the precise opposite. His conclusion, mark you, is spot-on:

A combination of outright isolationism, which remains the overriding instinct of the Conservative party and significant parts of the press, combined with mendacious claims about the constitution itself, will soon repel the vast majority of British voters. The electorate is not enthusiastic about the EU, that much is obvious from a volley of opinion polls. But, when push comes to shove, it is not prepared to countenance withdrawal, and more susceptible to reasoned support for European integration than is commonly assumed.

I’ve quoted Nick at length here, which may be seen as unfair. I want to re-iterate: this is an issue on which (to the best of my knowledge) both he and Chris Huhne agree 100% – that I have quoted Nick is simply because his article was to hand.

The arguments for or against a Treaty referendum are, to my mind, finely balanced; I equivocated my reasons why here. But, both at the 1992 general election on the Maastricht Treaty, and again in 2005 on the proposed EU Constitution, the Lib Dems argued strongly in support of consulting the British people on Europe’s direction of travel.

Perhaps a straightforward ‘In or Out?’ question would result in a more honest and more substantial debate than that which might occur on the subject of this Treaty. We know, though, we will not win that Parliamentary vote (even if it does prompt an interesting split among Tory ranks). So why not now support a Treaty referendum for exactly the reasons Nick subscribed to in 2003?

Maybe both candidates have utterly compelling answers to that question. If so, now’s the time to tell us what they are.

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This entry was posted in Leadership Election and Op-eds.


  • Just when Tim Hames wrote about Lib Dems in the Times:

    “The notion that there is no political space for liberalism is a strange one. The Liberal Party and its successors have held firm to similar principles for about 150 years. Their credo includes a staunch belief in individual liberty, a confidence in the capacity of man to improve the chances of all in society, a determination that political individuals and institutions should be constrained by written rules and a dedicated internationalism.”

    If Lib Dems deny the referendum from the people, it seems that they don’t have that much of confidence in the capacity of the man, after all.

  • As we move closer to a vote in Parliament on a referendum on the new Treaty, Liberal Democrats will look more and more absurd if we line up behind Gordon Brown to stop the public being given a say – for all the reasons Nick Clegg MEP outlined!

    Why are we so keen to give Brown cover on this? We are – first and foremost – democrats.

  • Agreed Tristan. Not all democrats are liberals but all liberals are democrats – I hope.

  • We must not help Broon on this, and we must point out Tory hypocrisy having opposed a referendum on Maastricht when they were in power.

  • Stephen says, “But would you be happy to see our MPs voting against the only EU referendum that’s on the table? (If our ‘in or out’ referendum proposal were to be defeated).”

    Exactly. The moment of maximum media interest in the whole ratification process will come when there is a vote in Parliament on whether the Treaty should be put to the people. At that point the Tories, the nationalists, the Irish parties and a significant bloc of Labour rebels will vote ‘yes’. Brown will be relying on Liberal Democrat votes to stop a referendum!

    It’s insane.

  • David Morton 30th Oct '07 - 5:19pm

    We could have brought down John majors Government over the maastricht paving vote but we didn’t. We took some short term stick at the time but survived. My view is you have to ask wether this tidy up excercise of a treaty deserves a refferendum. No in my opinion. If you start conceding refferendums just because opinion polls sayy it would be popular what about the Death Penalty?

  • David Morton 30th Oct '07 - 6:39pm

    Its not fear of the mob. If the mob really wanted the death penalty back they could have it. they would just have to get off there fat arses and elect enough MP’s to reflect the alledged majority view. I’m not anti democratic I just refferendums should be reserved for those really big changes that change the nature of the political system its self. I think the partys subjective judgement that this treaty doesn’t qualify is the right one.

  • Well said, James. Liberal Democrats know – because we live and work in the communities we serve – that people do not fit the Sun-reading, mob-rule stereotype conjured up by opponents of referendums.

  • David Morton 30th Oct '07 - 7:15pm

    20. He said using a Sun style sterotype of people who oppose referendums!

  • Bonkalot Jones 30th Oct '07 - 8:23pm

    So let me see if I have this right..

    Nick Clegg – Would keep Trident and might give us a vote on the ‘Reform’ Treaty.

    Chris Huhne – Would ditch Trident unilaterally and has no plan to offer a referendum..

    Well, I think that’s my mind made up then…

  • passing (well, virtually live-in) tory 30th Oct '07 - 10:08pm

    Let me put some of my reasons for wanting a referendum on this treaty (as opposed to either letting it sail through or putting an in/out referendum).

    There is a lot of talk of needing to be at the heart of Europe in order to influence it, and this is a very noble aim. I think that many people see problems with the way that the EU operates. The treaty is in effect a constitution, in that it revises the way in which decisions are made and shifts the balance of power.

    The argument for their needing to be some tidying up is strong, but as this document sets the rules for how the EU operates THIS is the point at which it is efficient to apply pressure to make sure things turn out the way we want. Not because that is the way that we (UK people) want them but because we think that there is merit in our views.

    Speaking as a liberal Conservative (and yes I know Cleggy doesn’t believe in us but we don’t need the sound of clapping to validate our existence) I am concerned by the centralising tendencies of the EU. This also seems to go against one of the core statements in the current LibDem discussion paper on Europe: namely that decisions should be made at the appropriate level, and usually as low down as possible: something that is simply not consistent with current SOP in Brussels.

    A referendum would allow people to analyse in depth precisely what arragements we are letting ourselves in for and a no result would give our negotiators a strong position for making the case for changes to the document that would hopefully make for a stronger and more effective EU in the long run. And I think that this SHOULD allow for greater flexibility between states; lots of central control and harmonising is not necessarily a good thing.

    Opposing something does not have to be a negative approach.

    I think that there also needs to be a greater link between the demos and the executive within the EU system. The very remoteness of the decision making process alientates a lot of people. But if we do not crack this NOW then when?

    And while I am in a Tunbridge Wells mood,
    one of my deep frusttrations in this area is that I get the impression that quite a few countries sit back and accumulate brownie points while hoping that the UK (and, to a lesser extent Denmark) will get stuck with the dirty work of providing an effective opposition and the tag of party poopers.

    So (from my completely neutral position) I would love to see the Lib Dems vote for a referendum; not in order to give them foreign people a bloody nose, but as a constructive step towards a better implementation of the EU.

  • Peter Bancroft 31st Oct '07 - 1:16am


    I think that you might be interested in the European Movement:

    …Or possibly Federal Union:

    Unfortunately neither of these groups are especially popular at the moment, though Federal Union at its peak (in the 1930s!) did have over 30,000 members.

  • Derrick Chester 31st Oct '07 - 2:18am

    If a referendum were to be granted on this Treaty then it would be lost. How can a Treaty be sold to people when the Gvt line for selling it is that the UK has opt-outs from all the main bits so we do not have to worry! Also the euro-sceptic press would have a field day.
    The Treaty is about making Europe work better because in areas like the environment, policing, defence it makes a great deal of sense to be working together. We should not be opting out of so much of it. Also of course the main thing about the EU is that it enables countries to work together politically rather than fight each other militarily. To grant a referendum at this time will collapse the process of greater co-operation once and for all as well make the UK the odd one out. Even the funny sounding Party that the Conservatives work with in the EU Parliament are in favour of this agreement.

    A referendum is surely only as good as the information put before people. Parliament can conduct line by line scrutiny whereas a referendum campaign cannot possibly do so. I urge you not to give the Conservatives this eurosceptic victory.

  • Oooww yes, let’s not give a “victory” by having a dialogue with “people”.
    They don’t have the information anyway and probably wouldn’t understand it if they did. Let the people in power at the top just make up their own minds about it, because top down decisions are what makes the EU so popular in Britain today.

  • I am a supporter of more co-operation in the EU. I am also a supporter of the greater use of referendums. So I was in favour of our original decision to back a referendum on the constitution, although I respected the argumements against. However, all that is now irrelevant.

    What matters is that we promised a referendum on the constitution in our 2005 manifesto. The Lisbon Treaty is the constitution, jigged around to allow the French and Dutch governments to lie plausibly to their electorates – and everyone knows it.

    It follows that we are honour-bound to support a referendum on the Treaty when it comes before Parliament. Any other course of action would be inconceivable for the Liberal Democrats.

  • I find it incredible that we are supporting Gordon Brown on this. People are concerned over this treaty and we should give them their say. Our position is too elitist.

  • passing (well, virtually live-in) tory 31st Oct '07 - 6:47pm

    Is the central question really whether we want to be in Europe or out? Surely it is more a question of how we can get effective cross-European organisation that benefits everyone but isn’t too restrictive.

    This is why I think that an In or Out referendum is not a very sensible suggestion. There is a significant danger that a lot of people would vote “out” just because it is the only way of registering their opposition to the way that the the EU operates. It would be far more constructive to have a vote on this treaty where a “no” would not be massively damaging to the integrity of the EU but could provide leverage for proposing a less intrusive and centralised structure with greater democratic accountability.

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