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The Lisbon Treaty - whether to have a referendum

February 2008

I haven't changed my mind since I wrote the article below on the European Constitution in 2003 and so will be supporting a referendum, as I do not consider the Lisbon Treaty is significantly different from the Constitution.

I am a strong supporter of the UK's membership of the EU because I believe that we have more influence in the world if we co-operate with other European countries than if we operate alone. For example, on issues such as climate change and international trade, pooling sovereignty makes us more, not less powerful. I believe in the principle of subsidiarity which means that decisions should be taken at the most appropriate level whether locally (some decisions currently taken by the national government should be delegated to local authorities), nationally, at the European level or globally. In any referendum I would vote in favour of the Treaty because I want to ensure that the EU works as efficiently and effectively as possible and in a system that gives us most influence. The new voting arrangements are beneficial to the UK.

I am also supporting an amendment to remove the opt-out on the Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The European Constitution:

December 2003

Although there has been no agreement on the EU Constitution at the Summit in December 2003, EU leaders are pressing ahead with the project.  In his post-summit press conference in Brussels, Tony Blair spoke of a “gathering consensus” and said that he was “more confident than ever” that a deal would be reached.   In Parliament on 15 December, the Prime Minister said that a great deal of progress had been made and there had been agreement on 82 points and it was only the issue of voting weights that had prevented agreement.

It will be for the Irish presidency to take the matter forward and Italy has handed on all the points that were formally agreed in Brussels.

I continue to believe that there should be a referendum once the Constitution is agreed.  Interestingly, Tony Blair has now slightly changed his line on the issue of a referendum saying that it is too early to decide.  He is quoted as saying “I would simply say let us wait and see what we get as the European Constitution, before we decide that it is something of sufficiently fundamental importance that we need a referendum on it”.

I drafted the following article to explain why I am calling for a referendum on an EU Constitution, versions of which appeard in Tribune and the Birmingham Post:

The European Constitution is the big issue that we have to face during the coming year but the Government continues to argue that there is nothing constitutionally new, so there need not be a referendum.  This just won’t wash.

The fact is the draft Constitution does contain real constitutional changes.  The national veto will be removed in 36 policy areas and, with the “escalator clause”, any or all of the remaining unanimity areas such as on taxation (the reason for Gordon Brown getting his knickers in a twist) can be switched to majority voting without amending the Constitution.  Instead the European Council is given powers to agree to such changes by unanimity, thereby cutting out national parliaments and electorates.

The draft Constitution also renovates the EU’s institutions in several other ways. It creates a new president of the European Council and an EU foreign minister.  It even creates, for the first time, a mechanism by which a country could leave the EU!  It provides for a new distribution of powers between the EU and member states so that in 10 areas member states will only be able to act if the EU decides not to.  Many of the changes are good and necessary.  The basic institutional structure of the EU was designed for the original six members and has been under pressure with 15 members.  Now with enlargement to 25 members it is clearly necessary to make changes.  But to argue that the changes proposed are not constitutionally significant is disingenuous and smacks of a fear to engage with the public.

Most of Europe’s leading politicians see the process of agreeing a new Constitution as a serious matter. German Foreign Minister, Joschka Fischer, said “This is the most important treaty since the formation of the European Economic Community.” The Italian Foreign Minister called it “a historic step in the integration process” and French Foreign Minister, Dominique de Villepin, said that the Constitution creates “a new political age”.

We need an opportunity to have a serious debate on Europe but people will not be engaged unless they have some real decision–making power.  European parliamentary elections have failed to provide the necessary opportunity as they mostly focus on national issues.  A referendum would both allow us to debate the European Union seriously and provide the democratic legitimacy that the Constitution needs.

A referendum campaign would enliven the debate over the EU, forcing the media to concentrate on the real issues: What tasks are best left to member states? What is the right level of harmonisation to promote efficiency of markets, combat discrimination and actually increase our influence in the world, not erode our sovereignty as some claim is the hidden agenda?  We could make the case for the enhanced trade union rights enshrined in the Charter of Fundamental Rights. We could discuss proposals for greater accountability of the decision-making process – how they don’t perhaps go far enough.  Who knows, this might even take us into a rational discussion about what federalism really means!

The absence of serious public participation means we are stuck with a caricatured debate lead by those who oppose our membership of the EU in principle. This will continue unless people have a real sense of ownership of - and involvement in - the EU. That is why we need a referendum on the Constitution.

A referendum would be entirely in keeping with the spirit of the Constitution. The Laeken declaration that set the constitutional process in motion stated “within the Union, the European institutions must be brought closer to its citizens.” Yet the drafting process in which people were supposed to participate did not capture the public imagination. We need to do more to involve the people to make the Constitution a success.

Of course, many people do not want a referendum on the Constitution because they fear that the Government would lose it.  That is a fundamentally undemocratic argument. You could equally argue that we should not hold any more general elections because we fear that we might lose them.  Many polls, such as the EU’s own Eurobarometer, which showed that 52 per cent support having a European Constitution, suggest that a ‘Yes’ campaign could well succeed.  The pro-European argument is a strong one, and those of us who believe in it should have the confidence to take it directly to the people.

The simple fact is that the European Constitution will make real constitutional changes that have not appeared in any party’s manifesto. If the Constitution is to be successful then there must be a referendum on it.  Otherwise it will create even more public hostility towards the EU and scupper any possible chance of a “Yes” vote on joining the Euro. The European integration project must take the peoples of Europe with it or it will fail. The effects of that failure would be catastrophic.

November 2003.

For background on my views...

..on Europe, please click here for an article I wrote for Red Pepper in 1995.


Letter to the Guardian

I put my name to the following letter, calling for a referendum on the EU Constitution in the 02/10/03 edition of the Guardian:

Labour debate moves on

"As Labour debates its European policy, it is time for the government to take seriously the demands of the 88% of people calling for a referendum on the European constitution. The draft is a new settlement for the EU. German foreign minister Joschka Fischer has called it "the most important treaty since the formation of the EEC". Labour is committed to a referendum on the euro and other EU countries are having referendums on the constitution, so it would be unacceptable if ordinary voters were to be denied a vote on the future of the EU."

Bill Morris (TGWU)
Mark Seddon, Christine Shawcroft (NEC) Frank Field MP, Mark Fisher MP, Gwyneth Dunwoody MP, Kate Hoey MP, Andrew Mackinlay MP, George Stevenson MP, John Cryer MP, Ian Gibson MP, John McDonnell MP, Frank Field MP, Mark Fisher MP, Gwyneth Dunwoody MP, Kate Hoey MP, Andrew Mackinlay MP, George Stevenson MP, John Cryer MP, Ian Gibson MP, John McDonnell MP, Kelvin Hopkins MP, Alan Simpson MP, Dianne Abbott MP, David Marshall MP, Austin Mitchell MP, Ann Cryer MP, Jeremy Corbyn MP, Alice Mahon MP, Bob Waring MP, David Taylor MP, Lynne Jones MP

For background on my views...

...on Europe, please click here for an article I wrote for Red Pepper in 1995

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On the web...

Four links across bottom bar 1) Young People's Parliament 2) Children and Young People's Unit 3) Kids Explore Parliament 4) Labour Party

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