Clamour for a referendum

The Lisbon Treaty's ratification
 
British public debate on the EU has focused in recent months on the Lisbon Treaty. The central thread running through political and media discussion has been the process of the Treaty's ratification, particularly contentious because of the commitment Mr Blair gave in 2004 to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty’s predecessor, the Constitutional Treaty. Jack Straw MP, then Foreign Secretary, has since conceded that this promise was made to assuage the public "clamour" for a referendum[1]. After the French and Dutch "no" votes, some commentators credited Mr Blair with a tactical success: he had deferred intensive media and political scrutiny of the Constitutional Treaty, perhaps indefinitely, by promising a referendum, correctly calculating that, in the event, it would not be held.
 
The progress made during the German and Portuguese Presidencies towards the agreement of the Lisbon Treaty in December surprised those in the UK who had supposed the Union was in interminable institutional deadlock. Mr Brown did not attend the signing ceremony at which all other heads of government were present, instead signing the Treaty in isolation later that day. Both the pro-European Liberal Democrats and the largely-Eurosceptic Conservative Party criticised Mr Brown for what they saw as an attempt to minimise media coverage of the signing. Mr Blair's commitment to a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty has returned to haunt his successor. The “clamour” for a referendum from much of the national print media remains undiminished.
 
Those in favour of a referendum being held in 2008 have sought to establish the equivalence of the Constitutional and Lisbon Treaties, while the Government has sought to stress the differences between the two; the Lisbon Treaty, according to the Government, falling short of constituting "fundamental constitutional change"[2] and therefore not warranting the holding of a referendum. Ironically, the two treaties are arguably more different from the UK's perspective than from that of other member states, the British opt-in/opt-out over areas of Justice and Home Affairs, for example, having been extended in the Lisbon Treaty. Nonetheless, the unquantifiable nature of the differences between the two treaties ensures that neither side can objectively win an argument of this type. The Lisbon Treaty has, like its predecessors, become the subject of a debate which is a surrogate for Britain's underlying attitude to the European Union; those pressing for a referendum (ostensibly on a "question of trust" in the Government) tending to be those most hostile to the EU's integrative development and Britain's place within it.
 
Correctly surmising that any referendum on the Lisbon Treaty could only ever be fought on the basis of the electorate’s more general appreciation of the Union, the Liberal Democrats have attempted to abstain from the immediate (and potentially politically damaging) debate, calling instead for a referendum at an undefined point in the future on Britain's membership of the EU. The Conservative Party has been silent on what the consequences of a "no" vote to a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty might be, or how a "re-negotiation" of the UK's terms of membership could in these circumstances take place. The Conservatives have also been unwilling to commit to holding a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty in the event of their forming a government in 2010. The main opposition parties are able to take their politically expedient positions safe in the knowledge that a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty will not, in all likelihood, take place.
 
The law implementing the Lisbon Treaty in the British parliament is currently undergoing a series of debates in the House of Commons, before being subject to a final vote there, and subsequently in the House of Lords. Initial focus settled, in late January, on a proposed amendment to add to the Bill a requirement for a referendum to be held as part of the Treaty's ratification. The 'rebellion' of 18 Labour MPs against the Government in supporting this amendment does not however threaten the vast numerical superiority in the Commons of those supporting ratification without a referendum. It seems unlikely too that the House of Lords, who will start to debate the Bill probably in early March, will constitute a barrier to the Treaty's parliamentary ratification. The Government has nonetheless sought to limit the political damage which it considers general debate on the Treaty in the Commons might cause – first, by structuring debates around specific policy areas, and second, by limiting the period for these debates to 12 days as opposed to the 18 desired by the Opposition.
 
The Committee of the Wise
 
The British Government has publicly committed itself to the view that no substantial new institutional changes can be envisaged in the European Union for a number of years to come. Perhaps in consequence of this attitude, there has been little or no political and public reaction to the establishment of the “Committee of the Wise”. In so far as the Government has expressed a view on the remit of the committee, it is to stress its view that economic reform should be the principal priority of the Union's agenda for the coming decade.


[1] Martin Bright and John Kampfner: Interview: Jack Straw, Published 20 September 2007, available at: (last access: 04.03.2008).

[2] Cf. House of Commons Debate, 21 Jan 2008, available at: (last access: 04.03.2008).