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Lorraine Mullally: Caroline Flint's admission of ignorance about the Lisbon Treaty makes the need for a referendum all the more urgent

Lorraine Mullally Lorraine Mullally is Director of Open Europe and argues here that the Europe Minister's admission that she has not bothered to read the Lisbon Treaty in its entirety makes it all the more urgent that British voters are given the opportunity to have their say in a referendum.

Unfortunately for the Government, the Lisbon Treaty and the referendum that never was came back to bite it this week, in the wake of Europe Minister Caroline Flint’s extraordinary admission that she hasn’t bothered to read the text in full.

It was bad enough when Ms. Flint told an audience at Leeds University last year that they should support European integration if they like pizza.  And now this.

For a Minister paid to discuss EU issues, it’s unbelievable and unacceptable that she hasn’t read – let alone tried to understand – the most important document to come out of the EU in years, and one which will have profound consequences for Europe and the UK’s place in it.  She should know it like the back of her hand.

The FCO agreed.  According to one newspaper, Flint's admission went down like a “lead balloon”.  An official said: "She was given a copy by her staff as soon as she got the job.  It's appalling she hasn't bothered to look at it. Her department is both furious and embarrassed."

Indeed.  It’s like the Chancellor saying he hasn’t read the Budget.  Or Tony Blair admitting he hadn’t bothered to read crucial sections of the Iraq dossier.

But actually, it’s arguably even more important than that. 

Because as well as the worrying news that the Minister in charge of our country’s relations with Europe has a flimsy grip on what’s going on in the EU (which, don’t forget, is responsible for 72% of the cost of all regulations introduced in this country) there is also the stark hypocrisy.

This is the woman who told the Irish people that they had voted ‘No’ to the Lisbon Treaty because they “misunderstood” it.  And this is also the Government that told us over and over again that the British people were not entitled to the promised referendum on the Treaty because on the big issues like EU treaty change, ‘politicians know best.’

As David Miliband said when urging Parliament not to vote for a referendum:

“The responsibility is ours, as Members of Parliament; I say, vote down the amendments and let us do what we are paid for.”

Flint’s admission betrays an alarming complacency.  Having so far got away with forcing the Treaty through Parliament, despite polls suggesting that as many as 88% of people wanted a referendum, and wanted to vote no, the Government wants to quietly bury the issue and move on.

This is an extension of the ‘bore them to death’ strategy the Government employed last year as the Treaty went through Parliament.  In an effort to convince people that they really shouldn’t bother their heads about the Treaty, the Government played down its importance, and inferred the issues were too boring, complex and technical for the general public.

Ms. Flint’s predecessor, Jim Murphy, perfected a mind-numbing monotone every time he was forced to discuss the Treaty, implying he was bored stiff by the whole thing and that the public should be too. 

Ed Miliband summed up the approach when he told Question Time:

“When you look at the issues in it like the voting weights in the council of Ministers, like whether we should have a rotating Presidency of the European Union, like some extensions of qualified majority voting, which there are, I don’t think those issues are issues which people in my constituency want to have a referendum on.”

Given the huge transfer of power from member states to Brussels contained in the Treaty, this ‘nothing to see here’ approach is absurd – and dishonest.

Part of the strategy involved painting anyone calling for a referendum as some kind of paranoid anorak.  True to form, Flint fell back on this weary formula this week as she tried to dig herself out of the enormous hole. 

Referring to her Shadow, Mark Francois, the following day she said:

“I have no doubt that he spends many nights and many hours—alone, I presume—poring over the Lisbon treaty to discover some hidden plot.”

What kind of government attempts to ridicule the opposition for getting to grips with one of the most important international treaties in years?

The kind that has no real vision for Europe, just a plan to shuffle along and hope for the best. 

This elite ‘permissive consensus’ towards EU integration is one of the reasons why so many people feel so alienated from the project – and worried about where it is going.  If we can’t trust our own elected politicians not to fall asleep at the wheel – and to then claim that anyone but a lonesome nerd would do the same – what hope is there of Britain ever driving the EU in the right direction? 

Some will point to reports that Ken Clarke admitted he hadn’t read the Maastricht Treaty during the debates in the early nineties.  This is equally unacceptable.  But it’s also irrelevant right now, because as everyone was told at school – two wrongs don’t make a right.

Anyone who believes in democracy should be rallied by this extraordinary admission. 

Because Caroline Flint has finally proved that one of the Government’s main arguments against holding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty is well and truly defunct.  Politicians don’t necessarily know any more than anyone else about ‘the big issues’, and this is certainly not a valid reason to renege on a referendum promise.

Indeed, according to Matt Qvordtrup, Professor of Government at the Robert Gordon University, a representative sample of Danish voters during the 1992 referendum campaign on the Maastricht Treaty showed they actually knew more about the treaty than the average backbench MP.

Since the politicians have shown they’re not up to the job, then the public should be given the chance to have the say they were promised on this vitally important Treaty – before it’s too late.


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