I have just published a Tweet which some readers will consider incendiary (Tim Montgomerie Tweeted “Wow! Strong stuff from Roger Helmer”), and of which I shall no doubt hear more. It read: “The EU/Sovereignty Bill is transparently futile spin. It simply demonstrates the Tory Party’s contempt for its eurosceptic wing”.
A couple of days back the Coalition published its EU Bill, which seeks to enshrine the so-called “Referendum Lock”. This will provide for a UK referendum on new Treaties, and on new transfers of powers to Brussels under existing treaties. But (of course there’s a “But”), this will apply only when Ministers consider that the powers concerned are sufficiently significant to warrant a referendum. In other words, we have a cast-iron guarantee of a referendum whenever Ministers think a referendum is necessary. But we scarcely need that enshrined in law – it would happen anyway.
This is why I describe it as transparently futile. It is intended to confirm a promise – but it’s no more than a promise to act if and when the government feels like it.
And we are right to have serious doubts about the government’s willingness to act. With Angela Merkel’s demand for a new Treaty on financial regulation of EU economies, we have the chance, as Mats Persson of Open Europe has pointed out, to negotiate. Cameron has some leverage, if only he chooses to use it. He can demand repatriation of powers, or opt-outs, in exchange for allowing Merkel to have her new financial oversight within the eurozone (and we must be clear: there must be no EU oversight outside the eurozone).
But William Hague has already answered this question: there will be no referendum on this issue. We are simply throwing away a strong hand of cards before the game begins. Europe Minister David Lidington has indicated that he expects no referendum in this parliament – perhaps for five years.
Yet as I have said several times, this government has been handing powers to Brussels arguably faster than the previous Labour administration. In a bare six month we’ve seen the EU diplomatic service; EU financial regulation: the EU Investigation Order; votes for convicts in jail; and now the roll-over on the budget. This government has no business to ask us to trust it in Europe, and the EU Bill confers no new powers on parliament or on the people – in effect, it merely asks us to keep trusting the government, on an issue where it clearly has not earned our trust, and appears to have no intention of attempting to do so.
The Bill is merely intended as a sop to eurosceptics, to buy off opposition and rebellion. Yet for the government to offer a sop which is transparently worthless is, as I said in my Tweet, merely to demonstrate contempt for those to whom the sop is offered. And Cameron should never forget that the great majority of Conservative members and activists are eurosceptics. If they are to be treated in this cavalier fashion, it would be unwise to rely on their enthusiasm and commitment in future elections.