Iain Dale’s obsession with the Lib Dems continues today with an attempt to make Clegg look out of step with the party on the EU reform treaty (as long as for “party” you read “four bloggers”). He asks: “are there any LibDem bloggers at all who support their new leader’s calamitous stand?” Well, on the condition that I don’t accept the stance as calamitous at all (awkward, maybe), I would like to step forward.
Paul Walter has already put forward the best worded technical argument on this that I have heard (including from Ed Davey), and I don’t intend to retread that particular strand of the case against a referendum. If you haven’t read Paul’s post, read it, and then add the rest of my post to it, to achieve a full appreciation of my point of view.
My main reason for disliking the idea of a referendum is that it just seems like a really stupid way to work our membership of the EU. When these documents get put together, years are spent by our (constitutionally) elected representatives hammering out the clauses they want and those they don’t. There are now 27 countries in the EU, and they all have their own positions. It’s a long and drawn out process. Nonetheless, if we believe there is merit in membership of the EU at all, then it is a worthwhile one, and any treaty that makes the EU work better is worth negotiating.
Once all this stuff is put together, right at the end of the process of wrangling that has formed this constitution, its final step before being passed into law is for each country to ratify it. And this is the stage when it is appropriate for the British people (or the people of any other country, for that matter) to have their say?
Think of it this way. You commission an architect to design a building for you, on the basis of your brief for what it must do. They then go away, and get the building’s design accepted by your neighbours, which involves the odd compromise on one or two points. They have to change one or two building materials to comply with environmental regulation (quite right too!). They draw up a design. At the end of it all, they stand back and say “There you are, it may not be exactly what you wanted, but we did our best. You can now either accept the job we’ve done, or tear it up.”
What would be on offer to the public in a referendum on this treaty would not be a meaningful say on the treaty, it would be petulance. If we want to be in the EU, we have to accept that treaties must be negotiated, and must inherantly be compromises. If we don’t like what they come out with, we should not derail the process for the rest of the nations who are quite happy with the way it is going. There is no point in sending them back to the drawing board, we are unlikely to get anything better back if we do. If we don’t like it, we should leave the EU.
And that is why the referendum the Lib Dems are proposing is the only sensible one to be offered. Referenda are always blunt instruments, and the idea that a referendum is the appropriate instrument with which the British public should express a view on something like the contents of the EU reform treaty is barking. Not when we have already had, for some time now, a much more sensible instrument with which to do so: a representative democracy. Nobody could argue that a party’s position towards the EU was not a big issue in the minds of many when they elected the parties that they did.
(You might, of course, take issue with the way our representative democracy is organised. For instance, you might point out that the Tory party is not as outright anti-Europe as many of its MPs and supporters might like, and that as such, your only option for expressing an explicitly anti-EU stance is to vote for a party like UKIP with little chance of success. I know. Frustrating, isn’t it? Why not vote for a party with a committment to change that, then.)
So lets not waylay the EU’s progress any more. If the great British public are so set against the EU reform treaty, despite the government’s having done their best to negotiate it in our interest (it is not in their interest to do otherwise, surely?), then lets take the opportunity to leave them all to it. But lets not insist on remaining in the EU, sending them back to the drawing board with every attempt they make to reform the EU. And if we entertain the notion that actually, given an in or out vote, the majority would vote to stay in the EU, then can we also accept that membership of the EU entails a committment to compromise and due process, and that referenda are wholly inappropriate to that process?
When we passed Maastricht, there was a case for a referendum. When we entered the EC, there certainly was. And there is a case now for a referendum. And it is the one the Lib Dems are offering. But I just don’t see that it is in any way helpful to have a referendum on the reform treaty. Once we accept that we want to be members of something called “the European Union”, and that we do not want to be the only members of it, then we no longer have the right to expect it to be everything we might want. It belongs to other people as well. If, on balance, we don’t like it, we should get out of it.
And that is why what Nick Clegg has done is eminently sensible.