Jeremy Hargreaves and Paul Walter get in a muddle…

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Okay. It’s late, I’m tired, and so I’ll try to be as brief as I can.

First of all Paul Walter:

So please tell me which provisions of the proposed EU Treaty result in transfers of sovereignty from the UK to the EU significant enough to warrant a national referendum and to justify the title “constitution”. Please list those provisions.

Quite simply, by massively extending the scope of co-decision to an extra 51 areas of EU policy, and by establishing legal personality to the EU – enabling it to sign international treaties on our behalf. I’m not against these rules – in fact I will defend them – but they clearly impact on the UK’s sovereignty.

I didn’t study any form of politics at school or university, aside from history. I have, however, taken the trouble to read the US Constitution and, peculiarly, found myself enjoying it. Yes, of course, it doesn’t have a flag mentioned in it, though its provisions do form the basis of the flag in the sense of the membership of the states in a greater union (the stars on the flag representing the current number of states, the stripes representing the original states). What the US Constitution does have are some fairly hefty items: Senate, House, President, Supreme Court.

The European Parliament, Commission, Council and Court of Justice seem pretty “hefty” to me, and the Reform Treaty impacts on each and every one of them.

It’s a revising treaty! It’s not a constitution. If you want a referendum on the EU constiution (as James, I think, implies he accepts with his point about the EU constiution being the series of treaties since Rome) you would have to have a referendum on all the treaties since Rome – i.e a wider referendum on EU membership as Ming has suggested.

We had a referendum in 1975, so treaties before then have already been ratified by a referendum. The Lib Dems called for a treaty for Maastricht; this is clearly the biggest reform since Maastricht. All I’m being is consistent with past party policy. Ming by contrast has only made a mild suggestion in lawyerly terms – hardly a clear commitment to a referendum on EU membership, more thinking out loud.

From the Cameron/UKIP angle this is not a debate about the EU treaty, it is a debate about EU membership per se.

In the case of UKIP, this is of course correct and I’m sure Nigel Farage would line up with Ming in calling for a referendum on membership itself. For the Tories, it is more complex. If the bulk of Conservative MPs really wanted to leave the EU, they’d have committed to this years ago. The fact is, they remain split on the issue. The fact that these splits have not been immediately apparent for the past decade is because no-one has ever bothered calling their bluff.

Cameron and Hague do not want to leave the EU, yet they are stuck in a holding pattern rejecting every EU reform, no matter how sensible. Holding a referendum will cause them no end of difficulty. If this treaty were rejected in a referendum and Cameron subsequently became Prime Minister, I can guarantee he would eventually come back from Brussels with a deal that looks remarkably similar to this one. He knows this better than anyone.

But what is wrong with a “proxy vote” anyway? I thought anti-referendum people were demanding a proxy vote in the form of a general election? The real problem is that, as Anthony Barnett points out, we are facing a crisis of trust. If the political class turn their backs on the public, the public will turn their backs on them. We can’t afford this situation to continue. If that means holding a “proxy vote” so be it.

Just as Hague’s “we want to keep the pound” campaign failed in a general election, so will Cameron’s “Referendum for a EU Treaty” campaign. So Ming is very clever, tactically, to help increase the danger of this happening for Cameron.

Oh really? In 2001, the Lib Dems were committed to a referendum on the Euro. In marginal constituencies, the party made great play of this. It was what Chris Rennard called a “shield issue”. Hague may have failed to make progress, but that was because both Labour and the Lib Dems neutralised him by being committed to a referendum. We did the same again over the constitutional treaty in 2005. Where’s our “shield” now, Paul?

As for Jeremy Hargreaves

However I don’t agree with that and it has also not been the traditional way of decision-making under the British constitution.

In fact I think it’s remembering just how unusual referendums have been in the process of British constitutional development.

Those who argue that we should have a referendum on this treaty because it represents important constitutional developments, need to answer the question of why therefore we have never ever had a referendum on any reform of the House of Commons, on any reform of the House of Lords, or on the introduction of a fundamental new piece of law such as the Human Rights Act. Are these not important constitutional developments?

First of all, we’ve never had reform of the House of Commons and only marginal reform of the House of Lords. Should we have a referendum on Parliamentary reform? Ideally, yes. Should we have had a referendum on the Human Rights Act? God yes! If we had, we would not now have the crisis of legitimacy we experience with people largely ignorant about what it is and what it does, and vulnerable to media scare stories about it guaranteeing prisoners porn, criminal suspects Kentucky Fried Chicken, et al.

In the latest party report on British Governance, to be debated at conference next week, the party does NOT commit itself to a referendum on the electoral system. But it does commit itself to a referendum on not only setting up a constitutional convention but ratifying its findings as well. The constitutional convention will, of course, be free to change the electoral system back to first past the post if it sees fit. I presume that Jeremy will be speaking against giving the public a say on such trifling constitutional matters.

And those advocating one now, especially they need to answer why we have never had a referendum on ratification of any previous EU Treaty.

The short answer to that is “because the Liberal Democrats were not in power” – we promised a referendum on Maastricht. And yes, relatively minor though they may have been, if that had set a precedent committing us to referendums on Amsterdam and Nice, I don’t think it would have been the end of the world. In fact, I strongly suspect the British public would have a much more adult relationship with the EU right now if we had (and the Tories would now be even more sidelined).

I don’t believe that people who actually believe the EU has an important role to play should fall into their trap and support a referendum on this treaty of detailed procedural points.

That’s because we aren’t falling into any trap: we simply recognise that the EU has a crisis of legitimacy within the UK which is unsustainable. Back when the Lib Dems were more self-confident than they are now, we weren’t afraid of such referendums. Sadly, the mere thought now has people like Jeremy and Paul (not to mention Ming) quivering under their beds in fear.

If they had anything positive to say about how we begin the hard work of educating and engaging the British public about the EU it might be a different story. Sadly, their bland response is “its a procedural matter”. Well, you could say that about pretty much anything to do with public administration. That being the case, why have elections at all?

We are in a bloody, unholy mess over Europe. It isn’t purely down the mendaciousness of the Eurosceptics; it is because pro-Europeans cede ground to them on an almost daily basis by positioning themselves against democracy and popular sovereignty. They come up with excuses about “proxy voting” blithely ignoring the fact that no ballot on any subject is ever cut and dried. They weren’t manning the barricades four years ago when it became apparent that the promised public debate on an EU constitution did not happen – they merely shrugged their shoulders and left it to the Eurosceptics to do all the shouting. Now the chickens have come home to roost they simply deny any responsibility. It is not good enough – it is appalling – and the Lib Dems should treat such deadbeats with contempt.

3 thoughts on “Jeremy Hargreaves and Paul Walter get in a muddle…

  1. it is because pro-Europeans cede ground to them on an almost daily basis by positioning themselves against democracy and popular sovereignty.

    This is a problem with the whole political class and this is but one area in which it manifests itself.
    There is a crisis of legitimacy in many areas because the political classes view themselves as being above the ordinary person and that election to power (largely by playing the political game which mostly only allows the political classes to the table) then they have legitimacy to do what they like.

    Despite representative democracy, the principle of government by the consent of the people is not much farther forward than when William of Orange crossed the Channel – now we have a restricted choice over who we elect, the we had a restricted choice over who we support in a revolution…

  2. French trial on the Lisbon Treaty

    Good evening,

    We are some french citizens who are fighting to obtain a new referendum on the Lisbon reform treaty.

    We have institute proceedings before the the European Human Rights Court.

    Please, joins us at http://www.29mai.eu. (english board).

    The fight must become european, as is the stake.

    Make, please, largely know all around you this initiative.

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