Conservative Home

« Lindsay Jenkins: The government is riding roughshod over voters to abolish local councils | Main | Mark Pritchard MP: Conservative MPs must remain cool under fire »

Ruth Lea: The British people must have a referendum on the new EU Treaty

Ruth_lea Ruth Lea is Director of Global Vision.

Even though there are currently some rather lurid tales of EU splits, it is still expected that this week’s EU Summit will agree a framework for the new EU Treaty. Provided all goes according to plan, an Inter-Governmental Conference will start in July, with the objective of finalising the draft for signing by all 27 member states in December.

This Treaty is, of course, closely modelled on the unfortunate Constitutional Treaty (the “Constitution”) which was rejected by the French and Dutch electorates in 2005. But it is now clear, as if we ever thought otherwise, that these democratic outbursts have not just failed to stop the process of integration. They have barely altered the nature and scope of the next EU Treaty.   

Chancellor Angela Merkel, one of the main forces driving the new Treaty, has made this very clear. She said that, when drafting the new Treaty, her strategy was “to use different terminology without changing the substance”. In other words, there has been a cosmetic make-over, but little more.   

Hence the word “Constitution” has been dropped. And references to the symbols of “statehood” such as the flag, the anthem (Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” from his 9th Symphony), and the motto (“Unity in Diversity”), have been dropped. But most of the original Constitution has been retained.

The Treaty will almost certainly include a permanent President, a reduction in the number of vetoes, a Foreign Minister, a re-weighting of votes in the Council of Ministers making it harder for Britain to block legislation and, somewhere and somehow, reference to a legally-binding Charter of Fundamental Rights. All these elements change the relationship between the member states and the EU and, therefore, have constitutional implications.

Protest as Tony Blair may, this agenda does not just amount to a bit of institutional tinkering to “make the EU work better”. In 2004 he promised a referendum on the original Constitution and he, or more accurately his successor Gordon Brown, should not renege on this promise.

We in Global Vision, a new campaign group arguing for a looser relationship between Britain and the EU, recently commissioned some polls from Populus and ICM. The numbers were remarkably similar. According to Populus 83% of respondents thought there should be a referendum on the new Treaty. A mere 14% thought not. According to ICM the equivalent figures were 80% and 15%. Next week Gordon Brown will be Prime Minister. Surely he will not want to start his premiership by denying the British people the referendum they were promised.

Moreover, when we asked people in our ICM poll their views on the probable elements of the Treaty, they rejected most of them. They opposed a permanent President of the EU, an EU Foreign Minister and Common European Foreign and Defence Policy. And they rejected the inevitable dilution of Britain’s influence in EU law-making which will follow on from the abolition of further vetoes and the reduction in Britain’s voting weights. Boring these things may sound (and let’s be honest they do) but they are important. They reduce the power of this country to govern itself and its influence on developments in the EU.

Of course, the British Government will argue that they will protect Britain’s interests with their so-called “red lines”. But historically the main purpose of these red lines has been to divert attention from other areas already conceded. And it will be no different this time.

With every treaty there is always hand-wringing in Britain about the inevitable loss of sovereignty as the EU pushes on with its objective of the “ever closer union of the peoples of Europe”. The EU does not have a reverse gear. Angela Merkel has, for example, said “as far as I am concerned, there is no alternative to the road to European unification”. She is fully entitled to this view and, given her country’s history, it is perfectly understandable.

Surely it is time for a major debate about what sort of relationship this country would like with the EU. To date any debate that has happened on this vexed issue has been reduced to an unseemly squabble between those arguing for staying in the EU, come what may, or simply withdrawing. But we in Global Vision promote a third option. Britain should, quite simply, negotiate a new looser relationship based on trade and mutually beneficial cooperation, whilst opting out of economic and political union. Switzerland has a similar relationship with the EU. At any treaty change Britain can, and if necessary should, use its veto power to insist on negotiating its new relationship as part of the deal.

All our polling shows that our “third way” is the option of choice. People don’t want to turn their backs on Europe, but they don’t want to be ruled by it either. We have little doubt that our vision for a looser relationship for Britain is right for the country, popular with the people and, given political will, perfectly feasible.

Let us start this debate on the future of our country now. Mr Brown, you must let us have a vote on the new Treaty.


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.