Thursday, 13 December 2007

Should we have a referendum on Europe?

Today the European Reform Treaty is signed by the EU leaders in Lisbon.  Gordon will sign later today because of a 'prior commitment' in Parliament.  The painful passage (or not) of the legislation will take place in Parliament next year,  As someone who campaigned for a 'yes' vote in the 1975 referendum and given that we were promised a referendum on any further EU constitutional changes in the Labour manifesto in 2005, I am persuaded by the argument that we ought to have a referendum on this Treaty.  Although the Conservatives have been clamouring for one since the defunct EU constitution, I am not making a party political point here but a purely practical one.  Most commentators seem to believe that although 'constitution' is missing from the Treaty's name, to all intents and purposes it is a EU constitution albeit with a few bits missed out and having ploughed my way through the EU constitution and the Reform Treaty I'm inclined to agree with them.  If that is the case, we were promised a referendum and we should have one.

The problem is that referendums often turn out not to be a vote on the specific proposal but a judgement on the government of the day.  That was certainly the case with the French referendum.  It's yet another way of hitting an unpopular government and is probably the main reason why Gordon has set his face against the whole thing.  The difficulty he faces is that no one actually believes that the Treaty is simply a tidying up operation and, with some justification, accuse the government of weasel words.  Despite this, there remains a strong case for a referendum on this issue just as there was for the Maastricht Treaty two decades ago.  The danger is that the people will simply have the Treaty imposed on them and the government will then find it difficult to maintain its much vaunted 'red lines'.  I have no truck with those who say that we should exit the EU and believe that, on balance, our membership has been beneficial to the country and would certainly campaign in favour of the Treaty.  However, for many people that is not their view and anti-EU views are hardened by the intransigence of government on the issue of a referendum.  Harold Wilson got it right in 1975 when he allowed MPs to campaign and vote on a non-party basis and he recognised that attitudes towards the EU, for and against, were cross-party in character.  The sovereignty of Parliament is grounded in the sovereignty of the people, something that successive governments find convenient to ignore.  It is not enough for government to say it knows best...people have their own views and should have the opportunity to express them.

I understand why the government is frightened of a referendum; it thinks it would lose and given its attitude to the people that may be right.  That should not preclude the people having a vote on the issue.  It's up to those of us who favour the Treaty to go out and sell it to people, to make the case for the EU and robustly answer those for whom the EU is a betrayal of our constitutional sovereignty.  Unlike the government, I think that we could win a referendum once the myths, falsehoods and misrepresentations of those opposed to the Treaty are exposed.  Fear of failure is an excuse for weak government.  So Gordon, call a referendum and allow those in Parliament opposed to the Treaty of whatever party to campaign against it so that those of us in favour of the EU, instead of hiding in the thickets can get out and campaign in favour.  You have little to lose and a great deal to gain!

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