The European Union Bill: Half a Loaf?

A stalwart of the eurosceptic movement, Lord Stoddart of Swindon addresses a TFA meeting

The government claims that the EU Bill will give the British people a guarantee against further powers and competences being passed to Brussels.  Any significant change will now lead to a referendum.  And let me share with you my private hope and belief: I am convinced that in any referendum on any aspect of the EU, the British people with their innate good sense will vote NO.

Those who oppose referenda (oddly enough, for the most part the same people who support the EU, and are terrified of letting voters have a say) argue that in referenda, people don’t actually vote on the question on the ballot paper.  They vote to express their general disaffection from the government, to “give the scoundrels a good kicking”.  Or they vote on what they thought the question was, or what they would like the question to be.

Generally I support referenda on broad constitutional questions where parliament seeks to make decisions going beyond its undoubted right to legislate during its term of office.  In particular, where the intention is to pass governance in perpetuity to new, foreign institutions, I believe we must ask the people first.  And generally, I trust the people to address the question.

But in this case the critics may be right.  Hostility to the EU is reaching such a level that the public will seize on any opportunity to give Brussels a kicking.  But I shall lose no sleep over that.  If the ballot paper mentions the EU, the people will vote NO, and a good thing too.

In the past I have dismissed the EU Bill as mere window-dressing, since the government of the day may have to consider whether the proposed transfer of power is of sufficient significance to justify a referendum.  All our experience suggests that in practice a government in office will resist an EU referendum at any price.  Blair promised a referendum on the euro — but never had the courage to call one, because he knew he would lose.  We were promised a referendum on the EU Constitution, but then Blair ratified the subsequent Lisbon Treaty, insisting it was not the same as the Constitution, when everybody knew (and in Brussels politicians boasted) that it was to all intents and purposes the same.  Cameron gave us his “cast iron guarantee” of a referendum on Lisbon, but then found a ready-made excuse to get him off the hook.

So I had little faith in any EU referendum where the government could in its own judgement decide against going to the people.  I have however modified this view, because sound folk whose views I respect — not least Chris Heaton-Harris MP, and Lord Stoddart of Swindon — seem to find some value in the Bill.  I have also sought advice from Europe Minister David Lidington, who writes: “The Act places an absolute and unqualified referendum lock on the further transfer or creation of EU competence, the removal of limits to existing competences and also on 50 national vetoes in the EU Treaties”.

He points out that there are two procedures for treaty changes under Lisbon: the Ordinary Revision Procedure (ORP); and the Simplified Revision Procedure (SRP).  Major changes would always be under the ORP, and this would always and automatically trigger a referendum.  Only minor changes would be contemplated under the SRP, and it is only in this category that ministerial judgement would be applied, to prevent referenda being discredited by being applied to trivia.

Let’s not forget that the EU has huge skill (and cynicism) in negotiating road-blocks of this kind, and would not hesitate to stretch the limits of the SRP, and then pressure the British government into deciding against a referendum.  Even so, the Bill seems to be a great deal better than nothing.

So let’s take a fr’instance.  Suppose that the EU decides on a common fiscal structure and debt union in the eurozone, as a response to the Greek crisis.  This will require a treaty change, since bail-outs are currently banned under the treaties (though they happen anyway).  The UK would have a veto on such a treaty change.  So would such a change trigger a UK referendum under the terms of the EU Bill?  Or would the government reach for the obvious excuse: “We’re not in the eurozone, so it doesn’t affect us”?

Clearly the creation of a debt union, with a common fiscal policy across the eurozone, would dramatically alter the EU for ever, creating a “Two Tier EU”.  It seems to me that the UK therefore has a great interest in the question, even though we are out of the eurozone.  I have asked David Lidington’s advice on this issue, and will report in due course.

To end on a positive note: given the EU’s ambition to raise EU taxes, and to appoint an EU Public Prosecutor, it does seem that we could actually see an EU referendum in the UK in the next year or two.  Let’s live in hope.  But we really need an EU In or Out referendum.

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8 Responses to The European Union Bill: Half a Loaf?

  1. Charles Wardrop says:

    Very interesting, but one has no grounds for confidence in the coalition’s adherence to rules which risk a “No” by the people.

    They always will slither out of their obligation, as they do not believe in democracy, unlike the lucky Swiss, whose politicians in power seem to believe their peoples’ wishes are more important than their own re-election.
    Interested to learn your opinions, Mr Helmer. Thanks!

    (Problems with trivia dogging referenda seem unimportant in CH, even if legislation is slowed down, but that is a lesser evil, as illustrated here by the crazy Climate Change Acts.)

  2. WitteringWitney says:

    There is another problem, Mr. Helmer. With the trust of our politicians at an all time low, especially where truth is concerned, there understandably is a certain level of cynicism involved here.
    I am supposed to believe what they say?

    Whether a change is under ORP or SRP, a change is a change and will have an impact on our nation, one way or another. Do you not therefore wish to change your view?

  3. Ross J Warren says:

    I think you have outlined the problem here, the SRP will be used to get around the problem of taking it to the Nation. We know that D.C. is not prepared to trust the people, and Labour never will.

    “If the ballot paper mentions the EU, the people will vote NO, and a good thing too.”

    Frankly I feel the chances of there ever being a vote is pretty slim.

  4. Heather Alibakir says:

    Hello Roger,

    I am all for coming out of the EU, but in the meantime support any kind of muzzling to control the animal until it can be put down!
    However re. a referendum, I know people who, whilst disliking most of what we have to put up with from this organisational bully, would vote against leaving the EU. They are afraid of how we would manage without it in terms of loss of trade and indeed, where the money needed to unwind everything would come from, albeit, much of that would be from our extortionate annual contributions.

    I do think that the anti- EU movers need to put in place some kind of explanation/manifesto as to what would happen if we severed the connection. I am sure that there are moves going on to strengthen and develop trade ties elsewhere and that financial calculations are being made, but in the event of a referendum (or better still before) the public need to be reassured that we shall not be jumping into the Channel without a life jacket and that their standard of living would not be eroded further.

    Your posts are much appreciated:thank you

    • Many thanks Heather. I believe that the people would vote “OUT”, given the opportunity, especially after all the relentlessly bad news on the EU front. But there is always a risk, and I’d be even more confident that they’d vote against (say) EU taxes. So maybe that sort of referendum would be the better starting point.

  5. Sean O'Hare says:

    There is absolutely no way that there will be any referendum on EU matters while Cameron occupies No. 10. He is as much a ditherer as Brown was and will always take the easy way out.

  6. Andrew Shakespeare says:

    “The Act places an absolute and unqualified referendum lock on the further transfer or creation of EU competence, the removal of limits to existing competences and also on 50 national vetoes in the EU Treaties”

    The last I heard, the Lords had reduced the number of vetoes to 3, and then amended the bill to expire at the end of this government. Has the Commons since struck the Lords’ amendments down, then?

    • My understanding is that the Commons reversed the Lords amendments. In the Lords, their lordships (some on the Brussels pay-roll) sought to water down the protections offered by the Bill, so as to help to prmote EU integration.

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