New poll: should the Lib Dems back an EU treaty referendum?

by Stephen Tall on August 29, 2007

There’s speculation in today’s Telegraph that the Lib Dems might back calls from the Tories, and from some 120 Labour rebels, for a referendum on the European Union reform treaty:

Sir Menzies Campbell, the Lib Dem leader, refused yesterday to rule out backing a referendum before a Commons scrutiny of the treaty proposals. Even though he said his personal view was that it was not necessary this time, he added: “I don’t think you can make a final decision on that until we see what the final document looks like.”

A senior party source later disclosed that younger Lib Dem MPs have privately urged Sir Menzies to abandon the party’s traditionally pro-EU stance and stop “taking the flak” for defending Brussels. The move reflects mounting concern that the Conservative Party under David Cameron would combine Eurosceptic policies with a broader appeal to unseat southern-based Lib Dem MPs at the next election.

What do you think? Should the Lib Dems support the demands for a referendum – after all, we were the only mainstream party to call for one to validate the Maastricht Treaty – or would this simply be pandering to a Eurosceptic media, exploiting issues too technical to be decided by a simple Yes/No vote?

A new poll is open – see the right-hand column – which poses just such a question… your chance to vote on whether we should have a vote.

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Yes, because Brown is seriously isolated on this issue now that 120 of his MPs have called for a referendum.

Even if you support the Treaty, the people still should have their say, for the sake of democracy and to try to offset apathy/low voter turnout.

by Mountjoy on August 29, 2007 at 9:04 am. Reply #

If anyone actually looks at the changes made by the treaty, they are so minor that they in no way need a referendum; the only purpose serverd would be those that are desperate to run a “no” campaign would get to do so. The call from some of the left not to opt-out of a rights provision does have some merit, but rejecting the treaty will hardly improve that.
Supporting a call for a referendum would be an act of opportunism likely to haunt us later on.

by tinter on August 29, 2007 at 9:22 am. Reply #

No we should not back a referendum. There is no point in asking our opinion about a complex document which nobody understands. We should eschew opportunism on this and every other matter.

by Laurence Boyce on August 29, 2007 at 10:05 am. Reply #

Absolutely agree with reasonable comments from tinter and the reliable Lawrence. As a party which locally will call for a referendum at the drop of a hat – but not provide them if in power – you should heed these remarks, Mountjoy says it all – it would be political opportunoism of the worst kind. This is why I fully expect it to appear all over Focus newsletters in the fairly near future. Surprise me please.

by Chris Paul on August 29, 2007 at 10:18 am. Reply #

It’s a no brainer, we were the only party that called for a referendum on Maastricht Treaty, we should have the courage to put this Treaty to the people. The Tories meanwhile should be challenged to show that they aren’t being opportunistic, and that they really believe in referenda on constitutional matters by agreeing to support the referendum on changing the system for electing the Commons (also promised in the Labour Manifesto).

by david on August 29, 2007 at 10:26 am. Reply #

So David does that mean you support having a referendum and campaigning for a YES vote? Or having a referendum and campaigning for whichever suits locally? Mirroring local views from doorstep to doorstep and having it both ways? Or what is it to be?

by Chris Paul on August 29, 2007 at 10:45 am. Reply #

David’s spot on. This treaty changes our constitution so we should have a referendum, just as we should have had on the original accession treaties, the Single European Act and the Maastricht Treaty. (Pedants many argue that the Single European Act was less of a change, more of a tidy up)

I’m 100% pro-European and I would like us to have this debate. At the very least it would split the other two parties down the middle. That’s got to be reason enough, hasn’t it?!

by wit and wisdom on August 29, 2007 at 10:58 am. Reply #

To me the draft treaty looks a bit of a dogs dinner.

If it does end up changing the power balance between the UK and the EU, then yes, we should be in favour of a referendum, because we are DEMOCRATS.

Much more importantly, we should be shouting out our support for the IDEAS behind European cooperation: Co-operation not conflict; The chance to change the world for the better; As a solution to common problems; As a way to spread peace and democracy across all of Europe.

Unfortunately, when we campaign on Europe at all, we get bogged down in defending the bureaucracy of the EU.

We have got other problems that will allow David Cameron to ‘unseat southern-based Lib Dem MPs’. Chopping and changing on principles will simply exacerbate the situation.

by steve rutherford on August 29, 2007 at 11:25 am. Reply #

I’ve long held that we should be backing referendum. I wonder if perhaps we should push for two questions–back the treaty as one, and stay in the EU as the other.

The former may be difficult, the latter I think would be easily won, and settle the case.

I believe we should leave politics to the politicians we elect and criticise/vote them in/out. But questions of how we are governed should be decided by us, not them, and this changes the power structure and decision making protocols of the EU, and thus affects how we’re governed.

by MatGB on August 29, 2007 at 11:34 am. Reply #

Just to say that I am rather anti referenda – they have little constitutional legitimacy in this country and the EU treaties are not irreversable – we can always leave the EU if we want to. If every country had a referendum it means that every country has to agree to a treaty at government level and then again at referendum level – which results in total gridlock. This is what eurosceptics want – an innefficient europe.

Just because we are democrats doesn’t mean people should vote on every issue all the time. This treaty is not as controversial as people make out. I just think we should get on with it. The voters elect politicians to lead after all. That is why we live in a representative democracy. If we have a referndum on this then why not one on any issue of public concern? The thin edge of the wedge I think.

by Neil Bradbury on August 29, 2007 at 12:22 pm. Reply #

Chris Paul, Yes I would campaign for a YES to the treaty and Yes to voting reform for the Commons.

by david on August 29, 2007 at 12:54 pm. Reply #

Existing policy is that there should be a referendum if changes are significant. The outline Treaty suggests that the Treaty is going to be somewhere between “quite significant” and “not very significant”. I´d prefer a referendum.

by peter on August 29, 2007 at 12:57 pm. Reply #

I believe passionately in democracy and accountability but I don’t think we should be having a referendum on this – it is exactly the kind of issue that we elect politicians for.

Apologies for the plug, but I have set out the case (as well as its impact on the Conservative Party) fully here.

by Jeremy Hargreaves on August 29, 2007 at 1:42 pm. Reply #

I really don’t see why we shouldn’t have a referendum on this. There’s nothing wrong with wheeling out the anti-EU nutters in the Tory party now and again, it reminds people what a bunch of loonies most of them are.

by Letterman on August 29, 2007 at 1:49 pm. Reply #

No 13 says: “I believe passionately in democracy and accountability but I don’t think we should be having a referendum on this – it is exactly the kind of issue that we elect politicians for.”

But just a minute. In 1972, the United Kingdom acceded to the then EEC without any of the politicians being aware of two decided cases of the European Court of Justice that are of the first importance: Costa v ENEL (the Doctrine of Supremacy) and Van Gend en Loos (the Doctrine of Direct Effect). Civil servants wrote briefing papers on these cases, but politicians, from Ted Heath downwards, ignored them.

Strange, isn’t it, that while politicians and pundits on both sides of the argument pontificated about national sovereignty, the real diminution in national sovereignty hidden within the jurisprudence of the ECJ was never discussed, and both Parliament in 1972 and the electorate in 1975 voted in complete ignorance of it.

Supposing the 1975 Referendum had included the following questions?

(1) Do you believe that where there is a conflict between the law of the United Kingdom and the law of the EEC, the latter should prevail?

(2) Do you believe that EEC Treaty provisions, Regulations and Directives that are sufficiently precise should become the law of the United Kingdom even if they are not enacted by the UK Parliament?

How would the people have voted?

The trouble with referenda is that the real issues are often overshadowed by what the political leaders and the media want us to hear.

In 1975, the “Yes” camp generated a kind of “feel-good” image of the EEC as a guarantor of peace and brotherly love, and on the negative side hinted that a “No” vote would mean that Tony Benn would take over the country.

I am all for referenda on constitutional issues, provided that those issues are actually debated.

As a single market, the EU has been an unqualified success and benefit to the British people. What we are entitled to question is (1) why the EU should have extended its competence to areas that have nothing to do with a single market, and (2) why the EU has a legal system that permits unelected judges to invent doctrines as fundamental as Supremacy and Direct Effect, neither of which has any basis in any treaty ever ratified by any parliament.

by Angus Huck on August 29, 2007 at 2:57 pm. Reply #

No 15: “Ratification of this treaty should be left to our elected representatives.”

Many politicians said this about the 1975 Referendum. Indeed, the late Maurice MacMillan MP even went so far as to say that he would disregard the result of the Referendum if the “No” camp won. The Referendum (first proposed by Tony Benn) was widely considered to be a device to defuse the division between the overwhelmingly anti-EEC Labour membership and the pro-EEC leadership.

Roy Jenkins, at the time, described the concept of the referendum as: “A very dangerous innovation in British politics, a splendid tool for demagogues and dictators.” And I agree with him. You will recall, perhaps, that during the Callaghan government, Margaret Thatcher, then Leader of the Opposition, called for referenda on capital punishment and strikes (“Hanging, The People Want It, Says Maggie”, ran the “Sun” headline).

But I do agree with the consensus that emerged from 1975 to the effect that we have referenda where a change in the constitutional settlement is proposed.

Is the new Treaty such a change?

Probably not. But it could, just could be, an opportunity to have an honest debate about the real issues, something we have never done in 30 years.

by Angus Huck on August 29, 2007 at 3:09 pm. Reply #

I note that those in favour of a referendum speak in terms of giving people a choice, and giving people a referendum on constitutional change. Aside from the lack of clarity over how many things can be taken to be a constitutional change in a nation without a written constitution and the fact that we can withdraw from a treaty, these are very vague lines of reasoning.
Being dull as I am, I have looked at the actual treaty and I don’t see anything that warrants a referendum in the slightest. I hope someone from the pro-referendum camp can tell me what actual change to be made does need to have this unusual measure taken- as opposed to the rights desire to hit their favourite scarecrow a few times.

by tinter on August 29, 2007 at 3:34 pm. Reply #

I was in two minds about this but it seems pretty clear to me that a referendum is not essential at all – even if it does seem hypocritical to argue that the Reform Treaty will make the EU more democratically accountable and then deny people a referendum.

It is evident from the no votes cast by the French and Dutch that their protest was not at the content of the Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe, but more a vote against the EU itself. People will use a referendum to vote against the EU, not against fault in the treaty – which will once again throw the EU into statis, as it was after the rejections in France and the Netherlands.

At the same time, we live in a representative democracy – we elect people to make decisions on our behalf. Ratification of this treaty should be left to our elected representatives.

by Craig W on August 29, 2007 at 2:43 pm. Reply #

I think that we should have a referendum, but not on this document. These sorts of treaties are deals for governments to hammer out between themselves.

I do think however that there should be an in/out referendum, the result of which the Government agrees in advance absolutely to abide by.

It needs to be spelt out clearly before any votes are cast that such a vote will settle the whole Europe issue in the view of the Government for at least a generation.

If the people vote no then so be it, we leave. It’s time to start treating the voters like grownups on Europe. We are democrats after all.

by Stuart on August 29, 2007 at 4:18 pm. Reply #

The reason why Europe is so unpopular is that people feel it has been imposed. Majors weakness and Blairs indecision have just made matters worse

Without a full blown debate on the issue the bigger the resentment will become.

The Lib Dems have always taken a high moral line on this issue. We have to take a deep breath and argue the case.

In my opinion it would be frankly mad to oppose a referendum. That just smacks of being afraid of the issue and falls right into the hands of the bonkers brigade.

by Anonymous on August 29, 2007 at 5:11 pm. Reply #

20. was me I just forgot to sign in

by Mike Cox on August 29, 2007 at 5:12 pm. Reply #

the lib dems promised a referendum in the 2005 election manifesto. Every lib dems mp who is currently in parliament promised to back a referendum – I can not see why they would break there promise after the election.

by Bill Vick on August 29, 2007 at 5:17 pm. Reply #

I think up to 120 Labour MPs rebelling on this issue is wildly optimistic on Ian Davidson’s behalf – he is not particularly forthcoming in listing the 120 MP’s I notice.

I would hate it if our party resorted to knee jerk Euro-scepticism. If a referendum was not necessary on Maastrict, then there is absolutely no reason for wanting one on this.

by Doug on August 29, 2007 at 5:35 pm. Reply #

22 posted:

“the lib dems promised a referendum in the 2005 election manifesto. Every lib dems mp who is currently in parliament promised to back a referendum – I can not see why they would break there promise after the election.”

Any promise made in 2005 by any party on a referendum would’ve been on the Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe, which has since been abandoned.

The Reform Treaty is however a new different treaty.

by Craig W on August 29, 2007 at 10:12 pm. Reply #

But there was a referendum in 1975 so people have had a chance to vote on the issue of membership. Of course it would have been better to have had the referendum in 1972 before the country joined, but the then Tory government wouldn’t give one.

by Manfarang on August 30, 2007 at 2:03 am. Reply #


Agreed. But what was voted on then was a completely different animal to what we have today.

I am nearly 50 and I didn’t get to vote on it. Europe has come a long way since then but the politicians have not brought the people with them and sooner or later there is going to be fall out from that

We have allowed the likes of Murdoch to totally dominate the debate on Europe and like it or not most people have become conditioned to be deeply sceptical about all things EU

by Mike Cox on August 30, 2007 at 6:25 am. Reply #

Craig wrote

“The Reform Treaty is however a new different treaty.”

But do you not see that the vast majority of people out there see this as politicians just playing with words

If this Treaty is just a mild revision of what we already have it is a perfect opportunity to have a real discussion and debate with the public about the benefits we enjoy from Europe

by Mike Cox on August 30, 2007 at 6:30 am. Reply #

“I would hate it if our party resorted to knee jerk Euro-scepticism. If a referendum was not necessary on Maastrict, then there is absolutely no reason for wanting one on this.”

Doug (23) – calling for a referendum (which I think should just be “Europe – in or out?”) is not the Eurosceptic thing to do. It’s the democratic thing to do.

I am a passionate pro-European, but the EU and our membership must be grounded utterly in the consent of the people. Full stop.

Personally, I think that if a vote was held and – importantly – the Government stated unequivocally that the result would be honoured then actually the pro-European side would overcome a sceptical public and win, just as happened in 1975.

What is dead wrong is that words are spun and commitments fudged just to avoid the public voting against the EU. That just feeds anti-Europeanism.

by Stuart on August 30, 2007 at 3:13 pm. Reply #

Mike Cox and others make good points – the real question is in or out?

by Tim Leunig on August 30, 2007 at 6:39 pm. Reply #

No! As argued in my blog (, it’s absurd to vote on a treaty, it’s a very complex leagl document. It would be good though to have a debate across Europe on what Europe is about, such as rights, freedoms, equality … especially given the fact that some, like the Polish brothers Kaczynski, seem to have difficult understanding these concepts.

by F on September 11, 2007 at 4:49 pm. Reply #

Why, F, are you crediting British citizens with such low intelligence? On principle, important changes to the constitution should be approved by the people. This, and every treaty going back to succession, is an important constitutional change, involving as it does the transfer of power from one body to another. It’s disgusting that we are dithering over this – yes to a referendum and yes to the treaty should be our stance.

by Gavin Whenman on September 11, 2007 at 5:12 pm. Reply #

Gavin, the problem isn’t necessarily with the people you’re asking the question to – although whether or not the Murdoch run MSM would allow a free debate is a valid concern – the problem is the answer choices available. Yes or No. But what matters is the unasked “Why?”.

I’d have a hard time voting for this treaty – albeit easier than when it was called a constitution – because it doesn’t do anything like enough. Any tiny state retains the ability to block 26 others, common foreign policy can only be brought by consent, Briain and France retain the at best anomalous Security Council seats. Militaries remain unintegrated, common agendas on all policy areas remain weak and useless.

When it was called a constitution, I was terrified that should it pass a referendum, Europhobes would be able to say forever ‘We have a constitution, that says this far and no further’. We would be stuck at this point forever. Taking that out has made it somewhat more palatable, but it is still weak, lacking in vision or scope, pandering to nationalists and protectionists.

Needless to say, were I to vote ‘no’, the reasons are somewhat different to that of the average Sun reader’s ‘no’. But we would be lumped in the same category, with no way of knowing how many people from either side of the argument belonged there.

This is even before you get into the question of what people would actually answer. We know that people voted Lib Dem in local council elections because they opposed the Iraq war – but I’m pretty sure that West Sussex County Council doesn’t actually get a veto on foreign policy. People don’t always vote on the issue at hand, and working out what question they were answering would be as difficult as deciphering what the answer itself meant.

by Greg Lowis on September 11, 2007 at 7:53 pm. Reply #

And yet that isn’t a reason to block a vote. If they reject the new treaty, then then EU and Member States should go out of their way to discover why (or at least find out why the majority did). If it turns out that most voted on misconceptions of the treaty propagated by the mass media, sell it better next time. But what if they find genuine areas of concern? Well, then they can adapt the treaty accordingly.

Why should we have a vote on this treaty? Because it takes away power from one body in our constitution and gives it to another – and the two bodies aren’t identical.

by Gavin Whenman on September 11, 2007 at 9:09 pm. Reply #

Detailed scrutiny in a calm and measured manner in committee can find genuine areas of concern far better than any hysterical slanging match lead by the Daily Hate Mail. Selling the same treaty again isn’t a simple matter of attaching a post-it note ‘Call me if you’ve got any questions about paragraph 128’. So you find out that the first time they said no because they wanted to punish the government for the state of the economy. So what? Doesn’t stop people from next time saying no because they don’t want Turkey to be a member. And the next time because tuition fees are too high. There is absolutely no way that every newspaper is going to publish calm and balanced tables ‘This clause means this. That paragraph determines that’, after which a well informed electorate will exercise a free choice. If that would happen, then absolutely yes we should support such a procedure – but that’s not a media and electoral environment anybody here will recognise.

Referenda are not historically used on this, or any issue. It’s worth noting that the entire political system as it already is was imposed without the approval or consent of those who find themselves governed by it. If there’s to be a referendum on this, they would be needed on all manner of issues – do you approve of the institutional arrangements of the House of Commons? Yes/No. The Lords? Yes/No. The Monarchy? Yes/No. Etc. Imagine the referenda of history, as power moved from monarchy to Parliament, the people being asked to approve every change.

If you want to shift away from representative democracy and towards direct democracy – which is a valid position, I’m not knocking it, merely exploring it – why not just abolish the existing legislature(s)? Seriously. The people can be trusted, the people are the ones affected, so the people should vote. Send a text, click a button, make your voice heard, majority rules. Law could be enacted in seconds, rather than years.

That’s not an idea I’m keen on. The American legislative system was designed in two parts – the House, where passions would be inflamed, and a majority plus one won. Then the Senate, where reasoned debate took over, and things could be blocked without a 60% majority in favour. Our Commons is no Senate, but it is somewhat more rational than the tabloid scrum that any referendum would become. Calm and reasoned debate on this is needed. A referendum might have an advisory place – a substantial ‘no’ vote would be a reason to pause, and ask what the problems were, identify those areas of concern and address them before proceeding – but it is too blunt a tool to be allowed to have the final say.

by Greg Lowis on September 11, 2007 at 10:35 pm. Reply #

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