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.

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Just when Tim Hames wrote about Lib Dems in the Times:

“The notion that there is no political space for liberalism is a strange one. The Liberal Party and its successors have held firm to similar principles for about 150 years. Their credo includes a staunch belief in individual liberty, a confidence in the capacity of man to improve the chances of all in society, a determination that political individuals and institutions should be constrained by written rules and a dedicated internationalism.”

If Lib Dems deny the referendum from the people, it seems that they don’t have that much of confidence in the capacity of the man, after all.

by Anonymous on October 30, 2007 at 8:19 am. Reply #

As we move closer to a vote in Parliament on a referendum on the new Treaty, Liberal Democrats will look more and more absurd if we line up behind Gordon Brown to stop the public being given a say – for all the reasons Nick Clegg MEP outlined!

Why are we so keen to give Brown cover on this? We are – first and foremost – democrats.

by Gordy on October 30, 2007 at 8:54 am. Reply #

We should support a referendum.

I would like to disagree with Gordy though, we should be first and foremost liberals.

You can be a democrat and support all manner of illiberal things. We also do not believe in the tyrrany of the majority (I would hope), on some things democracy opposes liberty.

by Tristan Mills on October 30, 2007 at 9:37 am. Reply #

Agreed Tristan. Not all democrats are liberals but all liberals are democrats – I hope.

by Gordy on October 30, 2007 at 10:15 am. Reply #

Personally I always opposed having a referendum on the constitution in the first place (for all the reasons about it being relatively technical).

But what you have quoted Nick Clegg saying here – that the specific proposals themselves are somewhat detailed, but that we shouldn’t be running away from the big issue – seems to me entirely consistent with, indeed almost a precursor of, the arguments now being put for a referendum on the big question of in/out.

If anyone is interested I set out my view of why we shouldn’t have a referendum on this technical treaty here and why we should have one on the bigger question of the UK’s continuing membership of the EU (which is the issue people actually are interested in) here.

In fact I think the public tide of opinion on all this may have now turned. The Conservative pro-referendum movement had their big rally on Saturday, and it was not well attended and no media covered it (Tory MEP and leading anti Dan Hannan is very cross about this here).

by Jeremy Hargreaves on October 30, 2007 at 10:26 am. Reply #

We seem to be forgetting that Ming was, and Chris and Nick ARE in favour of a referendum – but instead of a misleading referendum-by-proxy on a revising treaty, they want to have a real referendum on EU membership – in or out – i.e a referendum not only on the latest treaty but all the treaties since the last referendum in the 70s.

by Paul Walter on October 30, 2007 at 10:34 am. Reply #

Not forgotten, Paul – see the second para of my piece.

But would you be happy to see our MPs voting against the only EU referendum that’s on the table? (If our ‘in or out’ referendum proposal were to be defeated).

by Stephen Tall on October 30, 2007 at 10:40 am. Reply #

We must not help Broon on this, and we must point out Tory hypocrisy having opposed a referendum on Maastricht when they were in power.

by david on October 30, 2007 at 10:40 am. Reply #

Stephen says, “But would you be happy to see our MPs voting against the only EU referendum that’s on the table? (If our ‘in or out’ referendum proposal were to be defeated).”

Exactly. The moment of maximum media interest in the whole ratification process will come when there is a vote in Parliament on whether the Treaty should be put to the people. At that point the Tories, the nationalists, the Irish parties and a significant bloc of Labour rebels will vote ‘yes’. Brown will be relying on Liberal Democrat votes to stop a referendum!

It’s insane.

by Gordy on October 30, 2007 at 10:58 am. Reply #

Sorry Stephen – as usual blundering around in my size tens.

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. The national debate which would follow 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 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.

by Paul Walter on October 30, 2007 at 11:06 am. Reply #

Could we maybe propose our own amendment – for an all-or-nothing referendum – and then ABSTAIN on what will I guess be a Conservatory amendment for a just-on-the-treaty amendment?

by Millennium Dome on October 30, 2007 at 11:51 am. Reply #

They should march through the no lobbies. I’m not queasy at all. At least not on account of the treaty.

by Laurence Boyce on October 30, 2007 at 12:11 pm. Reply #

What we should do is to table an amendment to the call for a referendum putting the Ming/Clegg/Huhne position of an in/out referendum under the terms of the new Treaty when it is ratified. Then when we lose that we back the Tory amendment to call for a referendum on the Treaty. What’s so difficult?

Right now, I’d vote against the Treaty – unless they can get a red line round the possibility of Tony Blair being president…:)

by Jock on October 30, 2007 at 12:13 pm. Reply #

Oops – I see the Elephant got there first. Though why abstain? We’d have made our point and a few ripples no doubt amongst the Tories with our amendment so then we vote to hold the executive to their manifesto commitment.

by Jock on October 30, 2007 at 12:15 pm. Reply #

I have a lot of sympathy with the position of this article. The difficulty is making the substance of the treaty, rather than the Europhobic rhetoric, the issue under discussion.

If the in-or-out treaty has no chance, how about a policy of separate votes on different sections of the treaty:

1. voting changes allowing for enlargement (yes/no)
1b. More QMV. (yes/no)
2. greater transparency and role of national parliaments (yes/no)
3. limits to the power and competences of the EU (yes/no)

Obviously the treaty can’t be ratified unless all the votes are “yes”. But at least the skeptics would have to say which they are opposing and why.

My guess is that many people do not want further enlargement – at least until the current enlargement has bedded in and shaken out – and would vote against 1 as the best proxy for that. Yet, “wider not deeper” has long been the call from the almost phobic right.

by Joe Otten on October 30, 2007 at 12:19 pm. Reply #

Abstention is a red herring (coming from a white elephant, natch). It is in effect a no vote, so why beat around the bush?

The question for Jeremy (and others) is that if we can’t get our first choice (a referendum on membership of the EU), surely the next best option would be a referendum on the Reform Treaty?

by James Graham on October 30, 2007 at 12:59 pm. Reply #

We could have brought down John majors Government over the maastricht paving vote but we didn’t. We took some short term stick at the time but survived. My view is you have to ask wether this tidy up excercise of a treaty deserves a refferendum. No in my opinion. If you start conceding refferendums just because opinion polls sayy it would be popular what about the Death Penalty?

by David Morton on October 30, 2007 at 5:19 pm. Reply #

Sounds good to me – the last EU country to hold a referendum on the death penalty was our neighbour Ireland – they voted to scrap it.

I don’t hold by this ‘fear the mob’ nonsense.

by James Graham on October 30, 2007 at 5:59 pm. Reply #

Its not fear of the mob. If the mob really wanted the death penalty back they could have it. they would just have to get off there fat arses and elect enough MP’s to reflect the alledged majority view. I’m not anti democratic I just refferendums should be reserved for those really big changes that change the nature of the political system its self. I think the partys subjective judgement that this treaty doesn’t qualify is the right one.

by David Morton on October 30, 2007 at 6:39 pm. Reply #

Well said, James. Liberal Democrats know – because we live and work in the communities we serve – that people do not fit the Sun-reading, mob-rule stereotype conjured up by opponents of referendums.

by Gordy on October 30, 2007 at 6:48 pm. Reply #

20. He said using a Sun style sterotype of people who oppose referendums!

by David Morton on October 30, 2007 at 7:15 pm. Reply #

So let me see if I have this right..

Nick Clegg – Would keep Trident and might give us a vote on the ‘Reform’ Treaty.

Chris Huhne – Would ditch Trident unilaterally and has no plan to offer a referendum..

Well, I think that’s my mind made up then…

by Bonkalot Jones on October 30, 2007 at 8:23 pm. Reply #

Let me put some of my reasons for wanting a referendum on this treaty (as opposed to either letting it sail through or putting an in/out referendum).

There is a lot of talk of needing to be at the heart of Europe in order to influence it, and this is a very noble aim. I think that many people see problems with the way that the EU operates. The treaty is in effect a constitution, in that it revises the way in which decisions are made and shifts the balance of power.

The argument for their needing to be some tidying up is strong, but as this document sets the rules for how the EU operates THIS is the point at which it is efficient to apply pressure to make sure things turn out the way we want. Not because that is the way that we (UK people) want them but because we think that there is merit in our views.

Speaking as a liberal Conservative (and yes I know Cleggy doesn’t believe in us but we don’t need the sound of clapping to validate our existence) I am concerned by the centralising tendencies of the EU. This also seems to go against one of the core statements in the current LibDem discussion paper on Europe: namely that decisions should be made at the appropriate level, and usually as low down as possible: something that is simply not consistent with current SOP in Brussels.

A referendum would allow people to analyse in depth precisely what arragements we are letting ourselves in for and a no result would give our negotiators a strong position for making the case for changes to the document that would hopefully make for a stronger and more effective EU in the long run. And I think that this SHOULD allow for greater flexibility between states; lots of central control and harmonising is not necessarily a good thing.

Opposing something does not have to be a negative approach.

I think that there also needs to be a greater link between the demos and the executive within the EU system. The very remoteness of the decision making process alientates a lot of people. But if we do not crack this NOW then when?

And while I am in a Tunbridge Wells mood,
one of my deep frusttrations in this area is that I get the impression that quite a few countries sit back and accumulate brownie points while hoping that the UK (and, to a lesser extent Denmark) will get stuck with the dirty work of providing an effective opposition and the tag of party poopers.

So (from my completely neutral position) I would love to see the Lib Dems vote for a referendum; not in order to give them foreign people a bloody nose, but as a constructive step towards a better implementation of the EU.

by passing (well, virtually live-in) tory on October 30, 2007 at 10:08 pm. Reply #

I do think that what we really need is a populist campaign to make the EU more democratic. It was liberals like Earl Grey who fought for decades to make the Westminster Parliament more democratic, culminating in the 1832 Reform Act. Now we should start the campaign to do the same for Europe. Scrap unelected Commissioners! Let the Council of Mnisters meet in public! Give the Parliament WE elect (preferably by STV) more power! This is the way to make the Europhobes irrelevant.

by Terry Gilbert on October 31, 2007 at 12:58 am. Reply #


I think that you might be interested in the European Movement:

…Or possibly Federal Union:

Unfortunately neither of these groups are especially popular at the moment, though Federal Union at its peak (in the 1930s!) did have over 30,000 members.

by Peter Bancroft on October 31, 2007 at 1:16 am. Reply #

If a referendum were to be granted on this Treaty then it would be lost. How can a Treaty be sold to people when the Gvt line for selling it is that the UK has opt-outs from all the main bits so we do not have to worry! Also the euro-sceptic press would have a field day.
The Treaty is about making Europe work better because in areas like the environment, policing, defence it makes a great deal of sense to be working together. We should not be opting out of so much of it. Also of course the main thing about the EU is that it enables countries to work together politically rather than fight each other militarily. To grant a referendum at this time will collapse the process of greater co-operation once and for all as well make the UK the odd one out. Even the funny sounding Party that the Conservatives work with in the EU Parliament are in favour of this agreement.

A referendum is surely only as good as the information put before people. Parliament can conduct line by line scrutiny whereas a referendum campaign cannot possibly do so. I urge you not to give the Conservatives this eurosceptic victory.

by Derrick Chester on October 31, 2007 at 2:18 am. Reply #

Oooww yes, let’s not give a “victory” by having a dialogue with “people”.
They don’t have the information anyway and probably wouldn’t understand it if they did. Let the people in power at the top just make up their own minds about it, because top down decisions are what makes the EU so popular in Britain today.

by Sal on October 31, 2007 at 2:51 am. Reply #

We are supposed to be the party that wants to give away power to the people. Yet with a treaty of significance the lib dem hierarchy wants to take the decision out of the peoples hands. Outrageous, illiberal and wrong.

by mindstar on October 31, 2007 at 3:33 am. Reply #

I am a supporter of more co-operation in the EU. I am also a supporter of the greater use of referendums. So I was in favour of our original decision to back a referendum on the constitution, although I respected the argumements against. However, all that is now irrelevant.

What matters is that we promised a referendum on the constitution in our 2005 manifesto. The Lisbon Treaty is the constitution, jigged around to allow the French and Dutch governments to lie plausibly to their electorates – and everyone knows it.

It follows that we are honour-bound to support a referendum on the Treaty when it comes before Parliament. Any other course of action would be inconceivable for the Liberal Democrats.

by Gordy on October 31, 2007 at 10:26 am. Reply #

I find it incredible that we are supporting Gordon Brown on this. People are concerned over this treaty and we should give them their say. Our position is too elitist.

by Sid on October 31, 2007 at 1:01 pm. Reply #

Mindstar – could you elucidate a bit on your phrase “of significance”? A key part of my view is that it isn’t very significant – well obviously it has *some* significance, but in my view not very much, and far less than lots of things that we don’t have referenda about (most Parliamentary Acts, for example).

by Jeremy Hargreaves on October 31, 2007 at 2:03 pm. Reply #

Sorry, should have been clearer – raised the possibility of abstention to give us a “plague on both your houses” position. We neither support the Prime Monster’s “weasel word” position NOR Mr Balloon’s cowardly “won’t face a referendum on the real question” position either.

Having said that, if we DO support a referendum on this treaty – and I think that I DO – then you are right we should vote for that!

by Millennium Dome on October 31, 2007 at 3:01 pm. Reply #

re #31

The significance is that this is not an act of parliament but an extra territorial treaty, with implications beyond the boundaries of British law and thus the Government should seek the authority of the people.

by mindstar on October 31, 2007 at 5:50 pm. Reply #

Is the central question really whether we want to be in Europe or out? Surely it is more a question of how we can get effective cross-European organisation that benefits everyone but isn’t too restrictive.

This is why I think that an In or Out referendum is not a very sensible suggestion. There is a significant danger that a lot of people would vote “out” just because it is the only way of registering their opposition to the way that the the EU operates. It would be far more constructive to have a vote on this treaty where a “no” would not be massively damaging to the integrity of the EU but could provide leverage for proposing a less intrusive and centralised structure with greater democratic accountability.

by passing (well, virtually live-in) tory on October 31, 2007 at 6:47 pm. Reply #

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