EU treaty referendum: the Davey defence

by Stephen Tall on January 22, 2008

I’ll readily confess to remaining uncomfortable with the Lib Dem position on opposing holding a referendum on the EU reform treaty. I do not like to see banner headlines on the BBC News Politics website proclaiming: Lib Dems oppose referendum vote.

It does not sit well with the widely-proclaimed belief of both candidates during the leadership contest that the party needed to become more spiky, anti-establishment, and to put the people – not politicians – in control of their own lives. Nor does it sit well with our previous, principled stance (alone among the three mainstream parties) that the Maastricht treaty should be subjected to a popular vote. On principle, and in campaigning terms, I think the party has made a mistake.

However, credit where it’s due to Ed Davey, our new shadow foreign secretary, who put forward a trenchant and persuasive argument in last night’s House of Commons debate on the Lisbon treaty. Read it for yourself, and judge it for yourself…

–>Edward Davey, Lib Dem shadow secretary of state for foreign and commonwealth affairs]: … we argue for a different referendum—a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union. Let us face it: a referendum on any EU treaty would become a referendum on the UK’s continued membership. Let us not have that debate by proxy on a treaty referendum. Let us have a debate that people want by asking a straightforward, in or out question. …

Mr. Jenkin: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for giving way. We all know why the Liberal Democrats have adopted this position. It is because they want to be able to say in their manifesto at the next election that they voted for a referendum at some juncture, when in fact they are denying themselves the opportunity of voting for the only realistic referendum on offer. That is a mean, grubby, typical Liberal Democrat trick.

Mr. Davey: If the hon. Gentleman had had the guts to vote with his colleagues for our amendment in the debate on the Loyal Address, we might have been able to get the referendum that the British people actually want. …

The most significant differences between the two treaties lie in the constitutional terms of those treaties. While Lisbon is just another amending treaty making a number of important, if modest, reforms, the constitutional treaty was something quite different. It abolished all past treaties, to replace them with one document: a new constitution. I believe that people have passed over that point and failed to grasp its significance. The Labour Member of the European Parliament, Richard Corbett, has it right when he points out that the DNA of mice and human beings is 90 per cent. the same—it is just that the remaining 10 per cent. is quite important. It is the same with the difference in nature between Lisbon and the constitutional treaty: the 10 per cent. difference moves one from a mouse of an amending treaty through to a fully evolved constitution.

A referendum on the constitutional treaty would therefore effectively have been a referendum on the whole of the EU—Rome, the Single European Act, Maastricht, Nice and Amsterdam. It would have been about the complete constitution.

Mr. Heathcoat-Amory: Surely treaties should be judged by their practical and legal effect. That is why two Select Committees of this House, which included Liberal Democrat among its members, concluded that in practical and legal substance, the two treaties are the same. Why does the hon. Gentleman not accept that?

Mr. Davey: The right hon. Gentleman failed to deal with my point that the constitutional treaty would have created a completely new constitution. The reform treaty is an amending treaty. If he cannot understand that, I really despair.

I shall quote the right hon. Member for Richmond, Yorks [William Hague] who said, when talking about the constitutional treaty, in 2006:

“the fact that it was a constitution, not simply a treaty—would have revolutionised the EU.”

For once, he was right. That is why he ought to recognise that what the Liberal Democrats are saying now, in our proposal for a referendum on EU membership, is far closer to a referendum on the constitutional treaty than the Conservatives’ paltry offering.

We believe that the British people have been denied a say on Europe for too long—on all the treaties and on the cumulative effects of all the changes. Unlike the Conservatives, who denied them a vote on Maastricht, we think that the people should speak. As a party that is strongly committed to the European Union, we want to offer the people the referendum that they really want. I hope that the House will allow a substantive amendment to the Bill to that effect so that we can begin to settle the European question and to draw the poison of anti-European feeling from the British body politic for a generation.