The Conservatives must support a referendum on EU membership

For me, support for a referendum on whether, or on what basis, the UK remains a member of the EU is the only viable option for the Conservative Party in the event of the Czech Republic ratifying the Lisbon Treaty, as now appears inevitable. This conclusion is based on a logical reading of the Party’s policy statement on the matter – albeit that our political parties don’t exactly have a glowing record of adhering to logic and apparent policy commitments!

The phrase “we would not let matters rest there” (meaning the Tories would not just accept the Lisbon Treaty as a done deal if all 27 EU states ratified it) was frequently quoted during the European Parliament election campaign earlier this year. However, the context in which this phrase occurs is revealing: “if the Treaty is in force we will be in a different situation. In our view, then, political integration would have gone too far, the Treaty would lack democratic legitimacy in this country and we would not let matters rest there”. If the Treaty lacked democratic legitimacy, and if it meant that the EU had gone too far down the road of political integration, this can only mean the Tories would seek to obtain democratic backing for realigning the UK’s membership of the EU along the lines that they think it should assume: essentially, a free-trade alliance and a means to pursue common action where co-operation is vital, such as on climate change and global economic issues.

The most obvious means to seek a democratic mandate to renegotiate the terms of the UK’s EU membership would be a referendum. Maybe the question put to voters would be along the following lines: ‘Do you believe the UK should renegotiate the terms of its membership of the European Union along the lines envisaged when the UK originally joined it as the European Economic Community (EEC)?’ The basis for putting the question in that form is the view that none of the changes in direction and transfers of power to the EU that have taken place since the 1975 referendum on Britain’s membership of the then EEC have been legitimised by adequate consultation of the British people. This would be consistent with the Tories’ line, in the same policy statement, that: “any future EU Treaty that transfers powers from the United Kingdom to the European Union would be subject to a referendum of the British people” (Conservatives’ own emphasis in bold). So, if future transfers of power need a referendum, by definition all the past ones need to be legitimised (or not) by some sort of retrospective referendum. Hence, the Tories can seek a mandate to renegotiate the terms of Britain’s membership in a new referendum in which a ‘yes’ vote effectively vetoes all the previous transfers of power since 1975.

Putting the question in this form – rather than, for instance, asking whether people backed full withdrawal from the EU in its present form – is also more likely to achieve the Tories’ policy objective of greatly modified UK membership of the EU. I think a clear majority would vote ‘yes’, albeit that many of them would also vote ‘yes’ to total withdrawal if that option were put to them. On the other hand, if the option was ‘support the EU, Lisbon Treaty and all, or withdraw completely’, I would be concerned that political and media scare tactics would persuade enough people to reluctantly back our membership of the EU along post-Lisbon lines. In addition, a pledge to carry out such a referendum would be a sure-fire vote winner for the Conservatives at the general election; whereas, if they decline to stand up for our constitutional and democratic rights, it would be handing potentially millions of votes to the BNP, UKIP and even the Liberal Democrats if they continue to support a referendum on EU membership.

So the Tories have got to back a referendum. It would be both unjust, counter-productive in terms of their own policies on Europe, and electoral suicide on their part if they don’t.


One Response

  1. […] the EU, because it’s already dead Posted on 4 November 2009 by David So I didn’t call it right: I thought David Cameron would at the very least call a referendum to give a Conservative […]

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