Tuesday, October 30, 2007

We need a referendum on the whole sausage, not a slice of it

Stephen Tall asks the $64,000 question:

Would you be happy to see our MPs voting against the only EU referendum that’s on the table?

It's the sort of question which brings a thin film of sweat to one's brow. But I have to be honest.

Yes, I would be happy for our MPs voting against a referendum on a minor revising treaty. It’s nuts. But I agree, such a move would be the political equivalent of sticking one’s head in a gas oven - but sometimes you have to stand up for the truth.

The revising treaty being discussed would be utterly stupid to put to a referendum. It's not a big enough constitutional change. As far as needing a national referendum, it is only marginally more consequential than a routine amendment to the standing orders at Baingstoke and Deane Borough Council (all right - I'm being provocative - it is quite consequential - so let's compare it instead to an amendment to the tea rota at Yattendon Parish Council - no, I'm being even more provocative now).

The national debate which would follow the announcement of such a referendum would be all about whether we want to be in the EU or not, but if we then get a “no” vote to the treaty question we would inevitably have to have a second referendum anyway on whether to stay in or leave the EU.

We should have a referendum on the whole salami sausage, not just a slice of it.

Ed Davey put this all very well a few weeks ago (my how long ago that seems now) on LibDem Voice:

I’d like to set out the full argument, including why the *draft* Reform Treaty doesn’t appear to warrant a referendum - but also why Ming is right to call for the REAL referendum people want.

Although we haven’t seen a *final* draft treaty emerge yet, as matters stand, I don’t think we will need a referendum to ratify this Treaty. There have been significant safeguards and changes to the now-dead constitution put in place to satisfy me that it does not meet the constitutional test to require a referendum. Of course, if the final Treaty is genuinely constitutional then this issue can be revisited - but people should look at the draft, not at reports of the draft!!

This comes from someone who supported the need for the European Constitution. I felt that it would have been good for Europe and good for Britain. I supported a referendum on that for specific reasons, in particular the changes to the Justice and Home Affairs pillar and placing the Charter of Fundamental Rights at the centre of the Constitution. But this new Reform Treaty makes significant changes.

For example compared to the proposals in the European Constitution:

there are further safeguards on the impact of the Charter of Fundamental Rights, which has been taken out of the treaties proper.

Britain can now choose whether it takes part in anti terrorism or cross border crime initiatives, they can’t be imposed on us.

There is no question of the UK giving up its seat on the UN Security Council and we retain control over our national defence and foreign affairs.

All references to a new Constitution have been dropped and the old treaty structure remains.

Other changes tend to be minor advances of the Nice Treaty of 2001.

But this European Union that now exists is a far cry from the European Community that the British people voted to join in 1975.

That is why I think we should have a referendum in Britain on the EU – and we should ask the people of Britain the big, crucial question that really matters – should we stay in the EU or withdraw.

A great European leap forward is not contained in this new reform treaty – this makes minor changes compared with the last treaty– the Single European Act of 1986, signed by Margaret Thatcher, made huge and substantial advances and extended QMV into many significant areas notably in the single market. The Conservatives didn’t call for a referendum then?

The last great leap forward for Europe took place in the Tory negotiated Maastricht Treaty of 1992.

That is when the European Union itself was created.

That is when the concept Monetary Union was formalised

That is when the concept of EU citizenship was created

That is when a formal Common Foreign and Security Policy was introduced

That is when the Justice and Home Affairs pillar was created

That’s when the European Council was formalised as an institution

That’s when the European Parliament gained the power of co-decision

That is when whole new areas of European policy were introduced such as on industrial policy, consumer protection, education and culture.

Maastricht was the critical treaty in constitutional terms – every treaty since has been in effect a minor reform of this Maastricht base.

Now I agree with the Maastricht Treaty, I am an ardent pro-European who believes that Britain can be more prosperous and more powerful as part of the European Union. We are far better able to tackle big issues like climate change and terrorism together than we are apart.

The single market is good for British jobs and helps British companies to compete and flourish.

When we pool our sovereignty like this, we gain far more power over the big issues that we can’t tackle alone. But when we pool sovereignty in such a large way as we did in the Single European Act and at Maastrict the British people ought to have the final say.

So we should have had a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty because it represented a big constitutional step forward. The British public should have had the right to decide whether it wanted to take that step, confidently, as a nation.

The Liberal Democrats called for a referendum then. But the Conservatives said no and denied Britain the choice on whether to take this huge constitutional step.

Well that decision has come and gone and Europe has moved on. But Britain hasn’t moved on.

Our debate on Europe is confused and muddled based on misunderstandings and spin.

Let’s face it, the argument the Tories are having in their party now aren’t about this new Reform Treaty. It is actually about the concepts in a treaty that they rammed through Parliament 15 years ago and that many of them still don’t accept.

So when William Hague complains about the concept of a European Foreign Policy we should remind him that it was his vote and the Conservative party that ratified the Treaty that set it up - and with no referendum.

The question of Britain’s place in the European Union has poisoned our national politics for decades. As a nation, we need to lance this boil and decide once and for all if we want to be a part of this European Union or not.

This is the big question, whether we like it ask it or not. This is the question that we should face.

My answer is would be an unequivocal yes. I would relish the opportunity to get out their and campaign – to take on those who would have us out – to banish the myths and have the argument on the big issues. And for me, as I’m sure it is for most people in this country, that question is not whether the Commission President should select Commissioners from a shortlist, or whether they should be voted in by QMV – or whether someone’s title should be High Representative on Foreign Affairs or Foreign Minister. If we are going to have a referendum it should be the big one.

That question is should Britain remain in this European Union?

So I say, let Parliament go about its normal business of ratifying this new treaty. In our representative democracy that is the correct way of going about things. Then when that is done we should ask the British people whether they wish to remain part of this European Union or not.

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