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

by Stephen Tall on October 30, 2007

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.