The EU Treaty: should we play the Yes/No game?

by Stephen Tall on August 29, 2007

I’m not much of a one for havering on the big issues of the day, and still less for then writing about my havering. But the rights and wrongs of whether the Lib Dems should back Tory and Labour-rebel calls for a referendum on the EU reform treaty – the mini-me successor to the defunct EU constitution – leaves my precariously perched on the fence.

A large part of me yearns for the direct democracy of the Landsgemeinde of a handful of the Swiss cantons. There is something rather glorious about the notion of citizens openly debating and voting on the issues that will directly affect them, and national referendums are an über-expression of that ideal.

There is also – and it shouldn’t be lightly dismissed – the issue of Realpolitik for the Liberal Democrats. We are, by collective instinct, an internationalist party, perhaps the only one left in the British political mainstream. Labour’s reputation lies in tatters thanks to its support of the invasion of Iraq without a UN mandate, while the Tories have always tended towards isolationist gut-nationalism. This has led the Lib Dems, at least post-merger and the split from the extant Liberal party, to be seen to be enthusiastically pro-European.

Unfortunately, the public (and, too often, the party itself) has assumed our embrace of Europeanism to mean we are married to the European Union. Though the Lib Dems, and especially Vince Cable, have been critical of the arcane protectionism of the EU – in particular it’s scandalous preservation of the CAP boondoggle which helps keep the Third World in poverty – we have never dared to shout too loud lest we are perceived to be undermining the European ideal.

Our identification as a ‘pro-Brussels’ party by our right-wing opponents in politics and the media might be considered by us to be unfair – we are, after all, the most decentralising and localist party – but we shouldn’t be too surprised that the label has stuck.

It was partly to distance ourselves from this taint of ‘Euro-fanaticism’ that the Lib Dems – alone among the political parties – called for a referendum to settle the UK’s view of the Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

Political opponents might call this opportunism – and perhaps there’s a sliver of truth in that. But let’s not forget that the Lib Dems also took the brave decision (once our call for a referendum had been voted down by the Tories and Labour) consistently to support the treaty, even while John Smith’s Labour Party was hypocritically using it as Parliamentary knock-about to score cheap partisan points to embarrass John Major.

Which begs the question: why not now support a referendum on the EU treaty? If it were good enough for Maastricht, why not for this? Especially when it will get the Lib Dems off the hook: we can call for a referendum to give the public their say – in itself a Good Thing – and then campaign for a Yes vote, underscoring our pro-European credentials. Why am I havering, even for a second?

It’s the tokenism of it which troubles me. If this country regularly held referendums – whether on constitutional matters, such as Europe, or other non-party issues – it would be less of a problem: this poll would be simply another one, and the public would view it in that light, judging the issue on its own merits.

But this would be only the second national referendum in this country’s history. It would be a Big Thing (though the turnout would likely be pitiful), which would imbue the verdict with significance.

And, here, it’s only fair to ask: what would we, the public, be voting about? Few of us – any of us? – really know. We would, of course, be a lot wiser as a result of the focus which a referendum would bring to bear on the Treaty issues. Referendums certainly have educational value (a good reason for holding more of them). But what would it actually settle?

If there were a Yes vote – unlikely, but possible – it would, I guess, at least temporarily silence those obsessive nut-jobs so prevalent in right-wing circles who regard Europe as the root of all evil. I might gain some small satisfaction from that… but not much. Because it would be that pleasurable prospect which would ultimately have determined my vote in favour of the Treaty, regardless of what I actually think about it. And that isn’t something of which to be proud, nor does it make for good, rational decision-making.

And if there were a No vote? What would that achieve? Well, it would stymie the Treaty, causing the EU wheels to grind to a halt yet again, which may or may not be a good thing. But would it mean the nation had achieved closure? Absolutely not. The gander of the anti-Europeans would be priapically up, but they would have little to show for it: one treaty down, but the one that counts – the Treaty of Rome – would remain in force. It would simply spur them on to demand another referendum, this time to re-decide whether the UK should be in or out of the EU.

My havering done, I remain undecided.

In principle – and so long as it is seen to set a precedent that future constitutional changes should also be tested by the will of the people – I see little harm in holding a referendum on this latest Treaty.

But I suspect it would simply be regarded as a cipher for the question it resolutely won’t determine: should the UK continue to be a full participant in the European Union?

So why not put that question to the vote, instead?