Former Europe minister Keith Vaz has joined in the debate about holding a referendum on Europe, calling for a vote on the same day as the general election next spring (not that a general election has to be held until 2010, but that’s another matter). Read the story here. His proposed question is:
“Do you support Britain’s continuing membership of the EU as set out under the terms of the Reform Treaty?”
This has been hailed by the eurosceptic press as support for their demand for a referendum on the Reform Treaty, but actually it’s not.
The consequence of a No vote to Keith Vaz’s question is not that the treaty fails to be ratified and the EU is left treaty-less, but rather that Britain chooses to leave the EU with the Reform Treaty going ahead anyway. I guess that is what the anti-Europeans want.
But, a note of warning. The Keith Vaz plan would not “settle the Europe question for a generation”, as he hopes, for two reasons.
First, a No vote would lead to an intensive negotiation and possibly a further referendum to settle the final terms of whatever new relationship Britain adopted with the rest of the EU. There are several options, which I wrote about here when Tony Blair announced his commitment to a referendum on the old constitutional treaty – http://federalunion.org.uk/what-happens-if-britain-votes-no/ – and we would have to argue and haggle over those. If the current discussion about Europe is often hard to follow, the next one would be much worse. Nothing would be settled in the referendum decision itself.
And secondly, a Yes vote wouldn’t settle matters either. That is because the No campaign would not give up at that point. Even though the result of the 1975 referendum, won 2 to 1 by the Yes side, led prominent anti-European Tony Benn to say “When the British people speak everyone, including members of Parliament, should tremble before their decision and that’s certainly the spirit with which I accept the result of the referendum”, only a year later a new campaign was launched to get Britain out.
The truth is that opponents of the Reform Treaty do not see a referendum as a matter of principle, but merely as a mechanism in order to get what they want. (Read a briefing on this point here. ) If they don’t get it that way, they will try and get it some other way. Whatever the arguments for and against a referendum on the Reform Treaty, no-one should concede the moral high ground to those who are in favour.