Ballot Box SmallSo the ‘debate‘ about whether Britain should hold a referendum on the EU Reform Treaty rumbles on. The Tories snipe from one side that this is indeed the same as the European Constitution, a document Blair was ready to put to a referendum. This is set against the backdrop of Redwood’s plans for deregulation and opt-outs from swathes of EU legislation.

On the other side the TUC is calling for a ballot on the treaty, concerned that the UK achieved an opt-out from the Charter of Fundamental Rights. The RMT goes further, stating that there should be no further transfer of powers as Member States should have the power to block neo-liberal EU legislation. Clearly they have not noticed that it’s the Member States that are neo-liberal, and social conscience for legislation such as the Services Directive was provided by the European Parliament. I digress…

All of this is being played out in a democratic environment that is fraying at the edges. What is the right place for direct democracy in the UK? Should the calls for a referendum from one PM, now departed, mean that a precedent has been set for EU treaties? Let’s not forget that the Single European Act and Maastricht, far greater transfers of power to the EU, were agreed through parliamentary ratification under Conservative administrations.

In most EU countries a solid precedent is set. Ireland and Denmark hold plenty of referendums on EU issues as their national constitutions oblige them to do so. Germany and Austria, among others, are constitutionally prevented from organising referendums.

It’s high time the UK had a national debate, or a Constitutional Convention perhaps, to debate these matters. An erosion of the powers of the House of Commons is a regular complaint, often voiced by the same people that are braying for a referendum on the Reform Treaty. Under what circumstances should referendums be allowed? Should it simply be at the behest of the governing party to call a referendum so it can kick a political issue into the long grass, and hence out of a general election debate?

Sceptics might argue that the Reform Treaty itself puts UK parliamentary traditions in jeopardy. I would rather argue that the misguided arguments about a referendum, and the precedents that sets in the UK, are far more concerning.


  1. The Reform Treaty is supposedly the solution for retrieving the lost European Union. These institutional reforms may path the future of the European project but won’t be sufficient in scheming a future for the European project. Do we want a European social model? Do we want a powerful Europe? Do we want of a common immigration policy? Where should our borders to stop?
    All these questions will need to be solved after the adoption of the treaty. Indeed, questions on further integration and enlargement will eventually need to be tackled again. This time around, the most crucial decisions will have to be made with citizens’ input.
    Notre Europe, the European think tank founded by Jacques Delors, aims to frontally address these questions by inviting 400 citizens to deliberate at the European Parliament in October.
    More on the innovative initiative of Tomorrow’s Europe on:

  2. Thanks for the comment Mathieu. I’m well aware of the vital role that think tanks play in efforts to answer these questions. But that’s not enough. Governments have gone back to what they knew with the Reform Treaty – same old way of organising reforms as with the Nice Treaty. It’s a long, hard task to get governments to do a bit of a re-think.

  3. You’re welcome! It’s always better to gather experience from plenty of different perspectives. That’s what I’ve been doing for the last 8 years in the Young European Federalists (and other organisations).

  4. Giacomo

    I premise that I talk from an Italian perspective, and here in Italy we have a solid history of referenda, but usually they are about civil rights or related topics (for example the referendum for allowing civil divorce).

    Reading some euroblogs by public people such as Margot Wallstrom or Mark Mardell, I have read many comments by British eurosceptics.

    What I have noticed is that in Britain many people (at least it seems to me that they are many) feel that the EU of today is not that of the time when they voted in the 1975 referendum and that they were talked it was just a common market at that time while now it is becoming a real political union in some kind of federal sense, but they have never had a way of expressing their opinion about this major “upgrading”.

    Here in Italy we do not have this problem, perhaps because we have a strong federal tradition in Europe related matters.

    Sometimes it seems to me that British people where not clearly informed about what was the goal the communities founded with the Rome treaties were decided to reach. Such a kind of federal aim has always been present in those communities and it became quite explicit with the Single European Act and still farther with the Maastricht treaty.

    So from my point of view, it would be better to clear this point in some way, maybe a new referendum about UK membership would be better than a referendum about the Reform Treaty, I don’t know… but I think that would be good also for UK’s European partners to make clear this point, in any effective way.

    I hope I haven’t been intrusive in UK’s domestic affairs, my aim was to show an outsider perspective, even if I am an outsider that has been bound with UK by EU.

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