The squirming of the Eurosceptics in the face of the Liberal Democrat call for a referendum on EU membership tells us a lot about them.
The Liberal Democrats themselves, having fought the last general election on a platform of a referendum on the then constitutional treaty, do not support the idea of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty – it is sufficiently different from the previous constitutional treaty to release them from their manifesto commitment – but nevertheless want a referendum on Europe. They say it will enable the issue of Europe to be settled in British politics, and it will also enable their MPs to say to their constituents that they offered the voters a direct say on Europe.
Nigel Farage MEP, leader of the UK Independence Party, has absurdly denounced this move. He says it is “nothing but a smokescreen”. He went on:
“Whilst in the long term I agree that this is the referendum we want, calling for it at this time is only to cover up their weasel-like position over a referendum.”
What has the long term got to do with it? It is not UKIP policy to withdraw from the EU in the long term, it is UKIP policy to withdraw from the EU as soon as possible. The fact is that there is little public support for leaving the EU and Nigel Farage knows it: he would rather have a referendum on the Lisbon treaty because he thinks there is more change of winning that one, which he knows would then be tantamount to a No vote on membership as a whole.
Neil O’Brien, director of Open Europe, agrees. He writes in the Guardian that
“Most people in Britain don’t want to see further centralisation of power in the EU – but at the same time they want to reform the EU, not leave it.”
The call to reform the EU is not limited to Britain: it is shared by the rest of the EU, too. And that is what the Lisbon treaty is for. It will increase the democratic accountability of the EU institutions and make the EU more effective at implementing agreed policies, without adding substantially to the range of policies that can be made.
If the British people do not accept these reforms, what else are they to do? These reforms have not come from nowhere – they have been under discussion for six years since the Laeken Declaration of December 2001 – and are not going to be rewritten substantially now. If the British, having taken part in the negotiations and signed up to these reforms so far, now change their mind, they are not going to change the mind of the rest of Europe with them.
Neil O’Brien is offering a false choice if he suggests that, between ratifying the treaty and leaving the EU, there is a third option. It doesn’t exist.
He himself objects, in his article on the Guardian website, that
“Only offering people a polarising “in or out” referendum would be a dishonest attempt to push people into positions they don’t hold.”
Actually, it would be a referendum on the Lisbon treaty rather than membership that would be the dishonest step, pretending that the British can both have their cake and eat it. The truth is that Neil O’Brien objects to the EU more that he is willing to say: it is the objection that dare not speak its name.