Yes to a referendum, but not on this treaty

Yes to a referendum, but not on this treaty

Bulletin article
01 October 2007

Britain is divided over the EU’s new Reform Treaty. The eurosceptic lobby is ratcheting up a well-funded, media-savvy campaign to pressure the government into holding a referendum on the treaty. Gordon Brown insists that the document should be ratified through parliament. Should Britain vote? Perhaps. But not on this treaty.

The pro-referendum campaigners say that the Reform Treaty and its predecessor, the constitutional treaty, are so similar that the government’s earlier pledge to hold a popular vote on the constitution should be honoured. This argument, of course, implies another one, namely that both the constitutional and the Reform Treaty would transfer large dollops of sovereignty to the EU and change the way Britain is governed. Eurosceptics calling for a referendum also portray the opt-outs and legal guarantees secured by Tony Blair as worthless. Many of them hope that a negative referendum will lead to a crisis ridden, do-nothing EU, or even trigger Britain’s departure from it.

At the same time, British trade unions want a referendum precisely because they believe that these opt-outs, especially the legal caveats applying to the EU’s charter of fundamental rights, will hold. Some trade unionists are not eurosceptic, but they see the government’s position on the charter as further evidence that Britons are being denied the social rights and protections that other Europeans enjoy. (In fact, the charter will not change the status quo or give the EU powers it does not already have.)

The British press, meanwhile, has helped to whip up anti-EU feeling. Some newspapers have joined the pro-referendum campaign. Many have spread spurious claims, for example that EU bureaucrats want to remove references to the Queen from British passports, release Ian Brady (a reviled murderer) from prison, tell the British police what cases they should investigate, and take away Britain’s seat on the UN Security Council.

Gordon Brown insists that the Reform Treaty safeguards Britain’s essential ‘red lines’, such as the national veto over tax, social security and foreign and defence policy. But the Conservative Party wants to force a parliamentary vote in favour of a referendum on the treaty. It is backed by a bunch of Labour eurosceptics, plus a few ex-ministers such as Gisela Stewart and Keith Vaz, who are not traditional eurosceptics. If enough Labour rebels joined the Conservatives, the government’s 69-seat majority could be under threat. But with Brown’s domestic and international credibility on the line, the number of Labour MPs willing to see the Conservatives win an historic victory may be limited. Furthermore, many leading Liberal Democrats are likely to support the government, which means that it will probably win in the House of Commons. But the government may still find it difficult to ratify the treaty through parliament, given that the views of some peers in the House of Lords are unclear.

With its strong tradition of parliamentary sovereignty, Britain has never ratified an international treaty by referendum. In British history, referendums have only been held on major constitutional changes: for example, on EU membership in 1975, and devolution for Scotland and Wales in 1979 and again in 1997. The Reform Treaty changes much less than earlier EU treaties, such as the Single European Act or the treaty of Maastricht, and cannot be described as constitutionally significant. The UK secured an opt-out on sensitive decisions affecting crime and policing. Hence the biggest innovation is probably the merger of the jobs currently done by the commissioner for external relations and the High Representative for EU foreign policy – a bureaucratic reform that resonates little with most Britons. The Reform Treaty would not change the way Britain is governed. That is the principled reason for opposing a referendum. The other main reason, for pro-Europeans, is that the chances of being able to win a referendum on such a highly complex document are minimal.

If the British were to vote No, thereby blocking the Reform Treaty, they could find it hard to stay in the EU. Britain’s partners value its contribution to the EU, but not at any price. Officials in London tend to under-estimate the exasperation in other EU capitals over Britain’s performance during the last five years’ arguments on treaty change: Britain won extra opt outs at last June’s summit, having already won huge battles in the negotiation of the constitutional treaty and the earlier text that came out of the convention on the future of Europe. It is inconceivable that the other governments would be willing to offer yet further concessions to make the treaty more palatable to Britons. Nor would they be prepared to abandon a treaty which they – rightly – consider essential to the smooth functioning of the EU.

The other countries might well decide to adopt the Reform Treaty among 26, asking Britain to negotiate a special status outside the Union. Britain would then be in a similar position to Switzerland or Norway: participants in the single market, but not allowed to vote on the rules applying to the market. It would be ironic if Britain were to leave the EU just when the Union – partly thanks to the recent enlargements – has started to evolve in a non-federalist, Atlanticist and economically liberal direction.

Even if Brown wins the parliamentary vote on the Reform Treaty, demands for a referendum will not go away. One way for the prime minister to avoid appearing defensive, and to take the moral high-ground, would be to follow the advice of the Liberal Democrat leader. “If there is to be a referendum it shouldn’t be restricted to a comparatively minor treaty,” said Sir Ming Campbell recently. “It must be a decision about the EU as a whole.” The question would be over a fundamental strategic choice: to stay in the Union, Reform Treaty and all, or to leave and negotiate a special status.

Many British pro-Europeans would welcome such a referendum as an opportunity to launch a broad debate on the benefits and costs of membership, and to escape from the narrow and negative arguments over the current treaty. They assume that when faced with the stark choice between in and out, most Britons would opt for membership. A cathartic argument over Britain’s place in Europe could be good for the country.

Copyright is held by the Centre for European Reform. You may not copy, reproduce, republish or circulate in any way the content from this publication except for your own personal and non-commercial use. Any other use requires the prior written permission of the Centre for European Reform.