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Lorraine Mullally: David Cameron should promise a referendum on reforming the EU

Lorraine Mullally Lorraine Mullally is Director of Open Europe.

Less than two weeks before the second Irish referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, opponents of the text still have some cause for optimism – such as the return of Declan Ganley to the disparate Irish ‘no’ campaign, or the new Europe Says No initiative.

But there’s no denying a ‘yes’ vote remains the most likely outcome, given the recent polls. David Cameron has reiterated again this week that he will hold a referendum on Lisbon if the Treaty is not yet in force by the time he gets to power.  But if Ireland does ratify the Treaty, and Germany also finishes the job, signals from the Czech Republic and Poland suggest these last remaining countries would not be far behind. And with the Manchester conference due to open just days after the referendum, ‘Europe’ is going to be on everyone’s lips.  A contingency plan is needed – and fast.

There is absolutely no mistaking the public mood on Europe now.  A new YouGov poll for the Telegraph this week found that 57 percent of voters think that a Conservative government should hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, even it is already ratified. Clearly, the fact that the Treaty has been “successfully” forced through against the will of the British people does not somehow make it right.  The Treaty will only have been in force for a few short months before the election.

But if Lisbon is already in force in Brussels, it would be a big step to have a retrospective vote on it. It doesn’t look like the Conservatives want to take this step.

Even if there isn’t going to be a referendum on Lisbon, we must have the long overdue vote on the future of our relationship with the EU – a “referendum on reform”. Such a vote would help to inform the public about all aspects of our membership. I believe that finally consulting the people would shatter the permissive consensus among the political class which has allowed the continual erosion of our democracy.

It would also be very difficult for the opposition to criticise.  Labour will be rubbing their hands at the prospect of the Conservative Party conference opening just days after an Irish ‘yes’ vote. But calling a referendum would put Gordon Brown on the spot.  He would find it difficult to denounce, because it would lose him votes.  As the polls show, people want to be consulted, one way or another.  EU leaders would also be ill-advised to criticise the idea, as that would only serve to underline the growing perception that the politicians calling the shots in Europe are against letting ordinary people have a say in how they are ruled. 

But what reforms should we vote on?  And why should the other 26 member states listen to such a vote? By happy coincidence, EU budget negotiations will be opening as the new government is elected in spring next year.  Decisions will be made about how much each member state will pay in over the next 7 year ‘Financial Framework’. This is something over which the UK government wields a veto – making it a golden opportunity to force radical reform.

Cameron has said that he wants, as just one example, to bring back bits of policy to the national level, such as social and employment policy.  That will require the agreement of 26 other member states.  But that doesn’t make it impossible. We should link demands for reform to the EU budget – and link that to a referendum.

The Conservatives should focus now on what they want out of the budget negotiations.  They should put together a package of the reforms they want to see, which would effectively mean Britain naming its “price” for not vetoing the budget. We should then have a referendum on this reform package, together with the Government’s proposal that it won‘t sign a budget deal until this is realised. The question would be something like:

“Are you in favour or against withholding agreement to the EU budget until the European Reform Package has been adopted?”

All kinds of things could be in such a package.  People have different priorities – from non-participation in some of the new Lisbon provisions, to an overhaul of Europe’s failing climate or regional policies.  The package as a whole would have to be politically realistic. The contents of the package could be published either before or after the election.  Either way, armed with a clear mandate from the British people, the Conservative government will be taken more seriously in Brussels as it tries to find allies for its ideas for radical reform.

Being presented with a fait accompli on Lisbon by a government which went back on its word is not an enviable position to be in.  But if David Cameron wants to do something about it, he must give the British public their chance to speak.


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