Open Europe Blog

Power to the Parliament

Open Europe has just hosted a debate on the Coalition Government’s proposed ‘referendum lock’ with Europe Minister David Lidington. A write-up and recording of the event will be put on our events page shortly. But in the meantime, two thoughts:

A point raised – echoing what was argued in the Economist’s Bagehot column last week – is that the referendum lock amounts to an effective “UK Veto Bill” over new EU treaties. This, so the reasoning goes, is de facto locking in a two-speed Europe, with Britain in the ‘slow lane’, as it would never be able to sign up to new Treaties under the Bill (assuming that any referendum on a new EU Treaty in the UK would result in a No vote).

This logic contains some truth but is also dated. In today’s more fluid, interesting but also more perilous, Europe what matters is one thing: the health of your economy.

Europe is already a multi-speed beast, fuelled by the ongoing eurozone crisis. The slow lane is reserved for the countries which don’t have enough cash to carry them over until tomorrow – not those which choose to stay out of the European Public Prosecutor (for example). Which lane the UK occupies in the future will depend on its economic fundamentals – not the referendum lock.

Secondly, some commentators really should read the actual Bill before ranting. Philip Stephens, who every week recycles columns in the FT, for instance. Today he argues,

It is likewise curious that a Tory party so wedded to parliamentary sovereignty should be so keen to subordinate its authority to a plebiscite. Margaret Thatcher got it right when she criticised the last popular vote on Europe in 1975. The referendum, the then Tory leader observed, sacrificed parliamentary sovereignty to political expediency.

This is wide of the mark. In fact, the biggest winner from this Bill is not the British people – a referendum is unlikely to be called for a long-time (which Stephens also acknowledges) – but the UK Parliament. Every decision outlined in the referendum lock will ultimately rest with Parliament, including whether a power shift is significant enough to warrant a referendum under the so-called significance criteria in the Bill.

In this sense, the proposal is actually more of a Parliamentary lock, than a referendum lock. What the Bill will do is restore some control to Parliament – which has been handed over to the government (and then onto MEPs, EU judges and eurocrats) through various EU treaties.

Now it’s up to Parliament to decide what to do with these powers.

Ps. Stephens also argues that the EU Bill is “a piece of legislation so dense and unintelligible that it makes the Maastricht treaty seem like an easy read.” He clearly has limited experience with EU treaties and texts. In fact, the EU Bill is a Stieg Larsson novel compared to much coming out of Brussels, such as the unconsolidated version of the Lisbon Treaty for example (which we were the first to decodify).

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