Faced with a referendum

Rt Hon William Hague MP, foreign secretary

The government’s European Union bill is going through parliament at the moment, with the intention of giving effect to three of the six pledges given by David Cameron when he dropped the idea of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty.  (Read the debate in the House of Commons here.)

The most important pledge is the requirement that a referendum be held on any future amendment to the EU treaties that pools more sovereignty.  It does not apply to amendments to the treaties that do not pool more sovereignty, nor to amendments to the treaties for the admission of new member states, which means that it does not cover some of the most substantial changes in the nature of the EU.  The accession of Turkey, for example, does not merit a referendum, whereas a switch from unanimity to QMV in agreeing the appointment of the advocates-general of the European Court of Justice does.

But the bill is not about the EU, it is about Britain.  The present government has said that it does not intend to agree to any treaty that might pool more sovereignty (and thus trigger a referendum) so the aim of the bill is to constrain future governments, even if elected on manifestos that support future sovereignty pooling.  Even when out of office, this government intends to stay in power.

The question of a referendum is a difficult one, I think, for a number of reasons.

It is easy to set out the democratic case that changes to the political system itself are qualitatively different to policies in general, and that the people should be invited to approve them directly.  In particular, this might be true of changes to the political system that could not easily be undone.  The government’s localism bill, for example, could lead to big changes in local government, but could be changed by a future government.  Changes to the EU treaties can only be undone by unanimous agreement among the member states, so the idea of a referendum before they can be approved makes some kind of sense.

On the other hand, are the people really given a realistic choice?  The nature of an EU treaty is that it is a detailed and complicated piece of law, with many learned professionals making a living from analysing and implementing it.  Is it sensible to imagine that the public can go through all the detail that qualified lawyers are normally called upon to deal with?  It is possible to simplify the arguments, of course, but that leads me to a second counter-argument: what happens when the simplifications turn out to be inaccurate.

It is one thing to argue over the meanings of the wording of the treaties – that is what those lawyers in the previous paragraph do all the time – but it is another thing to invent meanings that are not actually in those words at all.  Unfortunately, this kind of invention is a standard trick on the part of opponents of the treaties.

Take the first Irish referendum on Lisbon, for example.  This blog reported here that:

“40 per cent voted No to protect Ireland’s low levels of corporate taxation. And one-third of No voters were concerned to prevent the introduction of conscription to a European army.”

The Lisbon treaty has no bearing on corporate tax rates and certainly does not lead to conscription – it does not even lead to an army – so where did the No voters get these ideas from?

Closer to home, we see the same phenomenon.  The so-called EU Referendum Campaign, which wants Britain to leave the EU, has published a string of falsehoods here, including the claim that the EU is forcing the privatisation of the Royal Mail.  (La Poste in France remains in state hands, by the way.)  You can read a point-by-point rebuttal here, from the European Movement.  But there is no other comeback.  Opponents of the EU can tell what lies they like, with impunity, because there is no means of compelling them not to.

In the general election, the Representation of the People Act 1983 forbids parliamentary candidates from telling lies about their opponents, as Phil Woolas discovered to his cost.  There is no such equivalent obligation on campaigners in referendums, nor does the government’s EU bill envisage creating one.

As a result, what we will see is not the decisions given to the people, but rather the decisions given to the people who are willing to tell the biggest and most outrageous lies.  Democracy is vitiated if it is practised without honesty.  William Hague’s EU bill is giving us the pretence but not the substance.  The government cannot yet face the truth about Europe.

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Andrew Duff, Liberal Democrat MEP and president of the UEF, has written about the problem here: The United Kingdom is about to change forever http://bit.ly/emyXrI

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