Open Europe Debate
The Government’s EU referendum lock: giving the key to parliament and voters?
Tuesday 16 November 12.30pm – 2pm
St. Stephen’s Club, 34 Queen Anne’s Gate, London SW1H 9AB
David Lidington MP, Minister of State for Europe
Kate Hoey MP, Labour MP for Vauxhall
David Rennie, Political Editor and Bagehot columnist, The Economist
Mats Persson, Director, Open Europe
Chair: James Forsyth, Political Editor, The Spectator
Liddington said that the Bill would:
1. provide for referenda on any important future transfers of sovereignty. He admitted that the question of deciding what constituted an important transfer of sovereignty was problematic , but pointed out that Parliament could insist on a referendum even if the executive decided there would not be one.
2. require parliamentary scrutiny and an Act of Parliament for any change to treaties however minor.
3. put into statutory form the Common Law position on Parliamentary sovereignty, namely, that any law or executive action arising from the EU by a British government would be simply a consequence of a parliament agreeing to its implementation and that the continued implementation of any law or executive action was at the will of Parliament, this to include the UK’s membership of the EU.
4. not affect the convention that no parliament could bind its successors.
Liddington also stated that:
5. the coalition had made clear that they would not countenance any new Treaty or changes to existing treaties which involved further loss of sovereignty in this Parliament. (This could mean that the referendum lock was not tested until after 2015). However, he qualified the “no new treaties” by dismissing the impending Croatian accessing treaty as not involving a loss of sovereignty. This is casuistry, because any change to EU membership affects both qualified majority voting and introduces new potential large scale migration from the new member to the rest of the EU, especially the richest EU states. Both are further breaches of sovereignty.
6. the Tories had been determined to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty if they had achieved a majority at the General Election. To this end William Hague had been in touch with the relevant civil servants to rescind such law as had already been passed and to prepare for a referendum bill. This I found insupportable because of Hague’s refusal of a referendum in November 2009 – http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/newstopics/politics/conservative/6495774/EU-Lisbon-Treaty-William-Hague-confrims-Tories-will-not-hold-referendum.html
During the question and answer session Declan Ganlan, the promoter of the RoI NO campaign during the two RoI referenda on the Lisbon Treaty, said that the Czech president Václav Klaus had told him personally that he (Klaus) would not have signed the treaty if Cameron had promised him personally to hold a referendum on Lisbon, but that Cameron had failed to make such a promise.
Rennie favoured the Bill because it:
1. contains a list of 56 circumstances (decided by the law officers of the government – the attorney-general etc) which would constitute a serious transfer of sovereignty.
2. would constitute a serious political barrier to any government wanting to sign up to future transfers of power because they would have to risk a parliamentary rebellion if a referendum was not offered by the government.
3. would provide a potent bargaining tool for British ministers in the council of ministers, for they could argue that if a measure was passed they would have to hold a referendum and that this would knock down unwanted proposals because the EU elite is terrified of referenda as they believe (rightly) that they would lose almost every time. Rennie said that he believes a referendum on leaving the EU would produce a NO vote because the major British parties and most of the media would be against Britain’s departure, but that any other EU related proposition put to a referendum in Britain would be rejected by voters.
Perrson gave a cautious welcome to the Bill which he saw as a significant check on governments, but was concerned about:
1. the scope for ministers to decide what is and what is not something worth either a referendum or an Act of Parliament. He pointed out the wording of the Bill on this point was very vague.
2. unlike any serious transfer of powers, there is no list of circumstances which would constitute insignificant change. Persson was concerned about this because of the propensity of EU ministers to start with seemingly innocuous proposals and then expand them greatly by fanciful interpretation, for example, the use of the clause in the Lisbon Treaty designed to provide assistance to EU states in emergencies, a clause clearly meant to deal with things such as natural disasters, which was used to justify the introduction of a stabilisation fund to allow Euro members to provide assistance to those in economic difficulties. This is of particular interest to the UK because ,despite not being a Euro member, the Brown government signed the UK up to underwriting the fund. The referendum lock would not apply to such instances and therefore radical extensions of EU law and authority could be made using existing EU treaties, for example, extensions of EU justice and home affairs powers using the Lisbon Treaty.
Hoey was introduced as a Eurosceptic but bridled at this, insisting she was a Eurorealist. She had little confidence in the proposed Bill because of the habit of British Governments to be spineless when dealing with Brussels. She said she wanted:
1. a referendum on whether the UK should remain in the EU.
2. the UK government to refuse to agree to any increase in the EU budget for the coming year and to refuse to pay any fine which resulted.
3. the UK Government to be generally less supine to prevent the incessant introduction of small changes which eventually added up to significant alteration in the relationship between the UK and the EU. .
Hoey got into an argument with Liddington about whether UK ambassadors had been instructed to fly the EU flag. She said she had met ambassadors who had told her they had been ordered to fly the EU flag. Liddington denied this and said it was at the ambassadors’ discretion and it should never be instead of the Union flag or be flown above the Union flag.
The Question and Answer session
These important points were made or raised:
1. The Act, if passed, would simply be an ordinary Act of Parliament which could be amended or repealed at any time.
2. The Bill contained no voter initiation of referenda powers, a clear indication of the determination of the framers of the Bill to ensure the decision about referenda would be kept firmly in the hands of politicians, especially the hands of ministers.
3. The question of judicial review of a refusal by a minister to grant a referendum was raised but no clear answer was given. Liddington thought it would be, but various voices pointed out that judges had been reluctant to intervene where judicial review was thought top be a political matter. Clearly that could apply in this case.
4. Declan Ganlan detailed his experiences in the RoI referenda and described the proposed lock as no more than window dressing because of the mentality of the Euro elites who simply would not play fair on referenda.
The mood of the meeting.
This I judged to be broadly hostile to the EU and sceptical of the ability or the willingness of the our politicians to prevent further incursions into British sovereignty. My own opinio, as ever, is that nothing short of withdrawal from the EU will have the slightest effect on the inexorable movement towards a USE.
The most depressing part of the meeting was the concentration on economic considerations when it came to staying in or leaving rather than the implications for democracy and national cultures of the EU.