Deconstructing the Lib Dem EU poll and other things to annoy the front bench

The Lib Dems have unveiled the results of a recently commissioned MORI Poll today with great flourish, insisting it confirms that their position for an in-out referendum is supported by twice as many people as a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

That’s fair enough, but there are two caveats. First of all, the questions are incredibly leading, being (in order):

  • Do you think there should be a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union, or not?
  • As you may know, the Lisbon Treaty, currently going through Parliament, makes changes to the way the European Union is run. If there were to be a referendum on Britain’s relationship with Europe, would you prefer it to be a referendum ONLY on the Lisbon Treaty, or a referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union altogether?

On a subconscious level this translates as:

  • A referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – what a good idea, eh?
  • A referendum on just the Lisbon Treaty? Poor show. A referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU – what a good idea, eh?

Secondly, what it suggests more than anything else is that the electorate hasn’t really been thinking very hard about this issue. 19% answered Don’t Know in Q1; 26% answered Don’t Know in Q2. 56% of people said they wanted an in/out referendum in Q1. 46% of people said they wanted either an in/out referendum or both an in/out and a Lisbon Treaty referendum in Q2. What happened to the other 10%? What this poll, more than anything else, tells us about the electorate is that it is all over the place on this issue. That shouldn’t be much comfort to anyone in this debate; no one is making an impact.

In fact the best thing I can say about this poll is that at least it is less desperate and contrived than IWAR’s silly “referendum” claiming that 88% of the public want one on Lisbon.

Back to the fall out over last week’s Ed Davey interview, I have to say I find it amusing to be accused of both “following the party line” and “going easy” on Davey and “tearing Ed Davey into pieces” at the same time. I happen to think neither is accurate: the first half of the interview was glowing with praise, the second half was critical but hardly ad hominem, but there you go. I do reject one criticism I’ve received which is that I shouldn’t have written it as it will be useful for William Hague to quote from in interventions this week. That ain’t my problem and the day it becomes my problem is the day I have to stop this blog.

In terms of the debate over the European Parliament’s role in appointing the President of the Commission, one other factor has come to my attention. A group of Europhiles have set up a new website calling for just one President of the EU. They are arguing that under Lisbon it would be both legal and desirable to combine the Council and Commission Presidents into one.

Personally I’m not convinced. The answer to the quoted question posed by Henry Kissinger “Who do I call if I want to call Europe?” is surely Javier Solana. Combining two of the most senior posts in the EU into one without another treaty sounds dodgy as hell (“In general the provisions do not directly restrict the unification of the two posts. Only the new article 245 does not allow the Commission President to engage in any ‘other occupation’. But chairing a meeting of the European Council is not an occupation. We are confident that the legal services of the institutions and member states will be able to interpret this in the way they intend (as they so often do in other matters of political Kompetenzstreit).” – Davey’s description of a “bizarre interpretation” would seem rather more apt here IMHO!). And how would you hold the post to account? Could the office holder be sacked from one post while holding onto the other? What if the Council sacked him/her as their President but Parliament wanted him/her to stay at the Commission? I seem to spend my life calling for separation of powers; why would anyone want combination of powers? (another quote: “in the UK most ministers (=executive) are also members of parliament (=legislative). In Britain judges (=judiciary) can be members of parliament” – yeah and isn’t that a peachy system?)

But what this website does show is that far from giving the Parliament a more central role in electing the Commission President being a controversial “interpretation” of the Lisbon Treaty, many pro-Europeans have already moved on and are arguing to go much further. It is pointless to pretend otherwise and to insist that talking about it will only help the eurosceptics’ cause.

According to the website’s facebook group, that includes Jeremy Hargreaves, the Vice Chair of the Lib Dems’ Federal Policy Committee. Zany euro-fanatic though I may be, it is comforting to discover that there are zanier fanatics than me out there holding much more senior positions within the party!


  1. You write that the merger of Commission and European Council president is “dodgy is hell”. – It was actually discussed with exactly that intention during the Convention (s. my comment here). But as always the matter is not a technical but a political: do we want two “leaders” who stand on each others toes or do we want a strong leader of the EU executive? – Of course Solana has to be the foreign policy contact for Kissinger’s successors to call, but who is your counterpart for hammering out a strategy in case of the next financial market turmoil? To agree on a new transatlantic agenda? To fight climate change?

    You also argue that you want separation of power. Yes, so do I. But mergig two executive posts into One president does not have to do with the separation of legislative, judicial and executive powers. It is simply about streamlinging within one of the branches.

  2. James, this is indeed very worrying. If we’re reduced to producing a push poll (which Clegg has e-mailed me twice today about, demanding I publicise it to party supporters in my area – will I heck as like), then doesn’t this demonstrate the paucity of the referendum on EU membership, and shouldn’t we be saying so publicly? The idea of insisting on a three-line whip abstention AGAINST our manifesto commitment is hardly going to improve the reputation of politics, is it, or that of our party?

  3. Jan: I really don’t give a fig what was said in the Convention. That was a drafting exercise for a dead document. What we have in front of us is a Treaty that does not mention combining the two roles.

    [Re: “A funny note on the side comes from then German foreign minister Joschka Fischer. When asked about the double heading (EC and Commission president) he replied that he has only good experience with “Doppelspitzen” in his own party.” Stop! My sides! Seriously though, doesn’t Doppelspitzen mean Twin Peaks? Over here that is a reference to a TV series which was famous for its obfuscation and surrealism – hardly a strong advert for your position]

    As for wanting two “leaders” who tread on each others toes – of course we do! Just as we want two chambers to decides our laws. Just as we want multiple political parties treading on each others toes all the time. Just as we want strict separation of powers. Checks and balances are a fundamental part of any functional democracy. It might not be Vorsprung durch Technic enough for you, but messiness is at the heart of any good liberal democracy. I like it fine. One Ring to rule them all (and in the darkness bind them)? No thanks!

    But there is also an intensely practical aspect to all this. Combining the two roles into one will make the dynamic between Parliament and Council even more intense. The Council will of course want One Of Them to chair their meetings; the Parliament will want someone to do their bidding. That suggests gridlock, and gridlock suggests horsetrading and all the worst aspects of EU negotiation. Far better to have a seperate Commission President who can act as a buffer.

    Derek: I’m still trying to get my head around WHAT our position on Wednesday is going to be. Given that Ed assured us on Wednesday that even if the Lib Dems voted en masse with the Tories Labour would still win comfortably, I can’t see the logic in insisting on a three line whip to abstain. As people are aware I am far too much of an optimist to believe we would adopt such a crazy position – primary sources would be welcome.

    Mark: I don’t want to get into the semantic differences between a push poll and a poll with a very clear steer, but polling companies indulge in the latter on a regular basis as I think you well know.

    Adrian: I’m not sure if the reference to your online poll, entirely unscientific and conducted at a completely different time, is designed to reassure me or make me even more sceptical about the MORI version, but the effect is most certainly the latter.

  4. James,
    either you dont understand how the EU works these days or you have a very different concept of separation of powers.
    As you might (not) know the Council is exactly the kind of institution a good (liberal) democrat does not like because it unites both legislative and executive powers. So does the European Council to some extent. Now, the Commission primarily holds executive powers (I am all in for separating the bits of judicial powers it has in competition). – Your tipping on the toes applied to Germany or the UK would mean giving the speaker of parliament (Bundesrat in Germany) executive powers… how does that make sense when the head of legislature becomes executive at once?
    And speaking about accountability. – Given that we had two presidents as you suggest – who is it that you want to hold to account when you are not happy with the political direction of the EU? With two parallel hats (=presidents) you cannot put responsibility to either of them (this in addition to the fact that you have no word whatsoever on the selection of the Council president anyways). Diversity and competition is to be between political parties and ideas, and between Parliament and maybe Council/member states. But once elected someone needs to be in charge – and accountable.

    As regards Fischer: Doppelspitze is the term used for describing the common (German) Green principle of always having two principle (equal) speakers of the party (and parliamentary group).

  5. Bum. On my first reading of the Ed Davey interview I thought you said he said the Tories had no chance with just the fifteen-odd Lib Dem treaty-reffers – didn’t realise he was talking about support of the whole party. That puts paid to the neat hidden storyline I have been polishing.

  6. Jan, come on. I didn’t say that the Council had strict separation of powers, just that having two separate Presidents (three actually) is an important check and that merging the two posts would create less accountability.

    You can’t create a single position with a single line of accountability as you are calling for unless that position were appointed by a single body. Under the system you are proposing it would be appointed by two – the Council and the Parliament. Again I ask you: what would happen if the Council wanted to get rid of the President but the Parliament didn’t?

    Anyway, why is this even an issue? The President of the Council is just a glorified chairperson. It is the person who will act as the main negotiator between the Parliament and the Commission. That’s how it should be, surely. It is the Commission President that has all the soft power. I simply can’t see why you feel the need to merge the two; it would simply confuse matters and effectively combine the Commission with the Council.

    Bottom line: Your interpretation flies in the face of both the literal wording of the Lisbon text (as you tacitly acknowledge on your website) and assurances being made by the heads of member states. There is simply no way you would be able to see your idea happen without another Treaty. Make your case then. We’ve still got to ratify this one!

  7. It matters little if we get a referendum on the Constitutional/Reform/Lisbon Treaty or not. It will just be ignored by the European Parliament. In case you missed it, the EU Parliament has recently voted to ignore the Irish referendum, whichever way they vote.
    EU democracy in action once again.
    Looks like another reason to leave.

  8. Rayatcov: the European Parliament may choose to ignore the Irish referendum if they wish, but the fact is that if the Irish vote no then the Treaty can’t take effect. It’s just one of those brute facts that euro-nutters claim isn’t so, such as arguing over the flatness of the earth. I’m sure you have incontrovertible truth to prove me otherwise, but you are simply wrong.

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