We do not need a referendum

We do not need a referendum

Opinion piece (The Guardian)
23 June 2007

Thank goodness for the agreement in Brussels last night. Without a deal, the EU would have been mired in arguments on treaties, institutions and process for a prolonged period. Now, hopefully, the Union can move on to deal with real problems in the real world, such as climate change, energy security, Kosovo, the revival of Russian power, and so on.

The new agreement stands a good chance of entering into force. True, there has to be an "inter-governmental conference" in the autumn, to translate the Brussels text into treaty language. And then all 27 member-states must ratify the new treaty. But this time - in contrast to the ratification of the constitutional treaty - most countries will choose a parliamentary vote rather than a referendum. The Irish will put the treaty to the people, and possibly the Danes, but probably nobody else.

I cannot foresee circumstances in which Gordon Brown would wish to hold a referendum on the treaty. He can make a strong case for choosing the parliamentary route, since the treaty will not transfer significant new powers to the EU. But that route may be bumpy. The Tories will vote against any bill that does not offer a referendum, and the Liberals may do the same, because they worry about losing votes in Tory-Liberal marginals. Denis MacShane MP, the former Europe minister, makes the point that only a few dozen Labour rebels could endanger the government's majority on ratification. But the odds must be that Brown will succeed in ratifying through Parliament next year, long before the general election looms.

Even before becoming prime minister, Gordon Brown has made a crucial strategic decision on Europe. He has had to choose between alienating Britain's eurosceptic press, or the most influential politicians in Europe. He could have chosen to curry favour with the Sun and the Daily Mail by refusing to support a new EU treaty. But in the end he chose to support a deal on treaty change, thereby ensuring that he becomes one of the club - alongside Chancellor Angela Merkel, President Nicolas Sarkozy, and Commission President José Manuel Barroso - that leads the EU. Before the summit Brown and his people worked with 10 Downing St and the Foreign Office to forge a common British position, which Blair - accompanied by Jon Cunliffe, Brown's man on Europe - took to Brussels.

As someone who wants to see Britain playing an active and constructive role in the EU, I am delighted with Brown's strategic choice. But some of the details of how the Treasury handled the summit diplomacy do give cause for concern. On June 15th the Sun attacked the proposed new treaty viciously, claiming that the "foreign minister" would lead to "Britain surrendering its seat on the UN Security Council". Treasury officials knew that nothing in the draft treaty could lead to such an outcome. But they worried about how this would play in the domestic debate on whether to hold a referendum.

So the Treasury persuaded the government to take a much tougher line on the foreign minister. Just before the summit Britain tried to deprive the post of both the right to chair ministerial meetings and to have a supporting "external action service" (see my previous blog) In the end no damage was done: during the summit British officials - knowing that they looked ridiculous in trying to cut away the authority of a post that had initially been a British idea - climbed down and agreed that the "High Representative" (as he or she will now be called) should chair meetings and have a support staff. I nevertheless find the ability of the Sun to shift British policy disturbing.

In any case, if British officials had spent a little less time focused on the press at home, they might have been more prepared for Sarkozy's surprise diplomatic initiative, when he cut the reference to "free and undistorted competition" from the text on the EU's objectives. The British - alongside other liberal forces, such as the European Commission - were wrong-footed by this move, but fought back, egged on by Gordon Brown on the phone. So a special protocol, reaffirming the Union's commitment to free and undistorted competition, has been added to the treaty - a classic piece of euro-fudge.

The Sun and the rest of the eurosceptic press will campaign vigorously for a referendum on the new treaty - as may some others who cannot be branded eurosceptic, such as Bill Emmott. In his recent blog, Emmott argued that any treaty including the charter of fundamental rights - even if Britain opted out from the charter, as it did yesterday - should be put to a referendum. I find this baffling. The charter itself, which does contain aspirational social principles such as the right to strike and to have decent housing, expressly states that it does not give the EU any new law-making powers, and that its rights are guaranteed only "in accordance with Union law and national laws and practices" (for an analysis of the charter, see Why treaty change matters for business and for Britain, by Hugo Brady and myself).

I have always been in favour of a referendum on any new treaty that would change the way Britain is governed, or transfer significant powers to the EU. Thus I would not want Britain to join the euro without a referendum. The new treaty will abolish national vetoes in two sensitive fields, justice and home affairs, and social security for migrant workers. But Britain has negotiated opt outs in those areas. The important changes in the treaty, such as the merger of two existing posts into that of the High Representative, to give the Union a single spokesman on foreign policy, are technical and improve existing institutional arrangements. So I do not see the point of a referendum.

I would argue that while the new amending treaty will not affect the lives of Britons, the EU's enlargement into Central and Eastern Europe has led to profound changes: more than half a million Poles have arrived (a change that I welcome). I would also argue that the WTO's Doha trade liberalisation round would - if a deal is agreed - boost global economic growth and thus impact the lives of Britons. I do not understand why so many of those who want a referendum on EU institutional treaties have failed to call for referendums on EU enlargements or WTO trade rounds (the French have recently changed their constitution so that future enlargements must be submitted to a referendum; would we also want them to vote on trade liberalisation?). Perhaps the answer is that some British eurosceptics are in favour of EU enlargement and trade liberalisation, and would not want to risk those objectives by putting them to a popular vote.