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EU: Referendum

Volume 693: debated on Tuesday 26 June 2007

asked Her Majesty’s Government:

What were the attributes of the previous European Union draft constitution which led them to agree to a referendum.

My Lords, as my right honourable friend the Prime Minister said in another place yesterday, the Government were in favour of the constitutional treaty and said at the time that they did not believe that it involved a fundamental transfer of power. However, the treaty purported to be a constitution for the whole of Europe, and other countries were holding referenda on that basis.

My Lords, I am grateful to the Minister for that reply, which I suppose is the best that he can do given that the Government and a few assorted Euro-philes are now the only people left on the planet who pretend that the new reform treaty will be in any way materially different from the failed constitution. When the Government state that they will not grant a referendum on the new treaty because referenda have not been granted on the previous four treaties, do they understand that a large and growing majority of the British people very much want one, because they now see that they have been steadily deceived by their political class for 32 years and that five wrongs will not make a right? Can the Government confirm that the constitution’s self-amending proposal will remain in the new treaty? If that is so, would not that alone justify a referendum?

My Lords, I know that there is a body of opinion in favour of holding a referendum, but the four past examples are not negligible—they were fundamental examples of how we conduct our relationship with Europe. It was decided that the sovereign Parliament should deal with all the details, which seems an appropriate role for a sovereign Parliament. As to the self-amending elements, the protections that have been built into the new treaty will unquestionably protect us from the changes about which the noble Lord expressed his concern.

My Lords, are not UKIP members and the Conservative neo-cons who are anti-European—there is quite a large number of them, I imagine, in both Houses—always obsessed with the sweep of British history? But does the Minister recollect that we entered the Second World War without a referendum, joined NATO without a referendum, joined the United Nations without a referendum and joined the WTO without a referendum? All of those steps severely limited the use of individual British national power. The Minister is correct to say that although the Prime Minister made a real fool of himself by saying that the 300-page original text did not require a referendum and then saying that it did because the Murdoch press threw a wobbly, it is this sovereign Parliament’s role to decide these matters on a very modest text.

My Lords, it is certainly true that we have not been addicted to referenda. However, there is no constitutional provision for when we do or do not hold one and certain amounts of judgment are required. I have expressed the judgment of the Government—which of course I share, and I am glad that it was described in such friendly terms—that this is not an occasion when it is appropriate. That gives the Parliament of this country the best opportunity to make sure that it is satisfied with the detail.

My Lords, is the Minister not being, uncharacteristically, a trifle precipitate? What we have now are heads of agreement; the treaty will emerge from the inter-governmental conference which is yet to be held. Would it not be wise for Her Majesty's Government to indicate in advance of those negotiations, and during them, that the question of whether we hold a referendum will depend very much on what emerges from the IGC?

My Lords, I wholly accept that we need to see what emerges from that, and it will be the substance of the debate which we hold. The probabilities are overwhelming that we have not seen the fundamental transfer of power that should have triggered the referendum that was promised. For those reasons I am confident in the answer that I can give.

My Lords, apart from the point that the Minister has just made, is it not by now quite plain that what matters are the six or perhaps eight points that really fall to be considered and decided and which the Government have already on two occasions in this House undertaken to underline to explain to people should be looked at on that basis? Is it not also clear that a blanket referendum on some 450 clauses is neither realistic nor practical nor of any utility whatever?

My Lords, I agree with that. However, were the document to be one clause, 400 clauses or 1,000 clauses and represent a fundamental shift in the powers of the United Kingdom to Europe, the promise of a referendum would have had to have been made good. I do not think that we can pick and choose the clauses that are liable to present the greatest contention out of the context of all the rest and potentially have any kind of referendum on that. Let us have the debate in this Parliament. Let us see how our Parliament deals with the detail, as it is best placed to do.

My Lords, it is absolutely right that everything depends on what happens at the IGC. But why then did the Official Opposition ask yesterday for a referendum?

My Lords, choosing tactics for the Government is hard enough work. Choosing tactics for the Opposition could be easier, but it is not my place.

My Lords, we on this side think that if the IGC comes out with a treaty based on what has been agreed, since that will be in the views of most European leaders at least 90 per cent of the old constitution recycled—one European leader says 99 per cent—the probability is that we will need a referendum. That is what the Government believed before, when the constitution was last on the table, and it is surprising that they have changed their mood now. Has the Minister had any more elucidation from the Liberal Democrat party, whose views I think we have just heard, whether it still favours a referendum or whether it has decided to follow the government lead, even though this is the constitution rehashed?

My Lords, the Liberal Democrats had best answer for themselves in the appropriate forum. There is, however, a misconception about the 90 per cent point which we ought to clear up. We all knew that when all the other treaties were drawn together, the point would be to assimilate them in a single document that covered and clarified all of those documents without changing them. It was therefore inevitable that a high proportion of that was going to be in the proposed treaty. If the figure is 90 per cent, it is 90 per cent. It was the 10 per cent which appeared to confer the rights, roles and responsibilities of a state and the movement of sovereignty that was the contentious part. In fact, if there had been 100 per cent from former treaties, I suspect that there would be no contention in this House at all.

My Lords, could my noble friend explain the fundamental change that President Sarkozy sought to dilute the single market and the competition elements? Does he agree that that is a much more fundamental change to the Treaty of Rome than many of the other issues we are talking about? What was the final outcome?

My Lords, I am aware that President Sarkozy did seek and achieve a change in the original wording. However, as you get into the text of the treaty, it is very clear that the underpinning references to competition are still there: Articles 4, 27, 34, 81 to 89, 96, 98, 105 and 157. All of those are competition requirements, and I believe that competition will prevail.

My Lords, will the Government publish, in plain language, a list of all the changes made to our relationship with what is now the EU since the referendum on remaining in the Common Market was held in 1975?

My Lords, that promises to be a far longer document than the 405—or however many it was—paragraphs. I hope, as we get into this debate, that there will be a genuine sharing of information and genuine explanations of where we are. The public have an absolute right to know about what we are debating and why.