A referendum on the EU treaty: bad idea
The (London) Times, being a Murdoch newspaper, naturally argues for a referendum on the EU treaty — and if the government were to agree to hold one, no doubt the Times, like the Conservative Party, would campaign for a No vote. So a modest bouquet to the Times for publishing today my letter which argues against holding a referendum at all:
The Times, October 24, 2007
A vote to stay in
To reject a treaty regarded as sound by all other EU governments would make us pariahs
Sir, You say that anything more than administrative changes in the EU treaty “must require a referendum and therefore a referendum is required” (“Cold Calculations”, leading article, Oct 23), and the Tories taunt the Prime Minister with the accusation that his reason for refusing a referendum is his fear of losing it.
In fact, that’s one, although not the only, perfectly rational and honourable reason for not holding a referendum. Not only the Tories but much of the Europhobic press would exploit the worst kinds of anti-European xenophobic prejudice to secure a “no” vote, not out of any genuine opposition to specific provisions of a treaty whose main purposes you yourself admit are necessary after EU expansion, but in the unacknowledged hope of bringing about Britain’s eventual exit from the EU.
If that is their aim, they should come clean about it: a referendum on British membership, as now advocated by the Lib Dems, could be a healthy way to lance the boil.
But for the UK, probably alone of all EU member states, to reject a treaty regarded by every single EU government as sound and necessary would make us the pariahs of the union, and may well result in our expulsion from it, an outcome that only a minority of the electorate seems to want.
HM Diplomatic Service, 1965-94
There are other reasons for not holding a referendum on this treaty. It's not an issue on which even the most sophisticated electorate can reasonably be asked to make a decision, given its phenomenal complexity. Most of the few who manage both to read and to understand the treaty (a minority which doesn't include me) will dislike some elements of the treaty, or have reservations about them; some will conclude that the bad outweighs the good and that on balance it should not be ratified; some will take the opposite view, and will support ratification on the grounds that the administrative and institutional reforms in the treaty are not just desirable but urgently necessary following the substantial expansion of the EU's membership, and that for the UK to refuse to ratify it would leave the EU in a very serious and disabling quandary. If this were to happen as a result of a referendum here, the other 26 EU member states would be unlikely to shrug their shoulders, accept the British veto as the end of the affair, and try to make the existing structures, designed for a Union of half its current size, work as best they can. Why should they? They would be much likelier to find a way to go ahead without the UK, perhaps not formally expelling us, but in effect making our continued membership impossible. It's no exaggeration to say that this would be a catastrophe for Britain. Once a referendum was conceded, we would be half-way down a slippery slope from which there would almost certainly be no rescue.
Ratification of the treaty is also unsuitable for another reason. The treaty is itself virtually unreadable, or, if read, unintelligible. To cast an informed vote in a referendum on it, we would all need to hire teams of research assistants to explain to us what it's all about. To take an example completely at random, what are we to make of this (PDF)? —
48) Article 27 shall take over the wording of Article 17, with the following amendments:
(a) the following new paragraph 1 shall be inserted and the next paragraph shall be renumbered 2:
"1. The common security and defence policy shall be an integral part of the common foreign and security policy…."
50) Articles 29 to 39 of Title VI of the EU Treaty, which relate to judicial cooperation in criminal matters and to police cooperation, shall be replaced by Articles 61 to 68 and 69e to 69l of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union; they shall be amended as set out in Article 2, points 64, 67 and 68, of this Treaty. The heading of the Title shall be deleted and its number shall become the number of the Title on final provisions.
And there's much more that's even more impenetrable.
Tony Blair, as prime minister, was hustled (reportedly by the inimitable Jack Straw) into promising a referendum on a quite different document: a brand-new constitution for the Union. It's beyond dispute that the reform treaty reproduces much that was in that draft constitution, but it's explicitly a different document, not a constitution but an amending treaty of the kind which we have seen several times before. This argument, although formally valid, can be — and is being — represented as jesuitical and evasive, which to an extent it is. Much better to acknowledge that whatever the rights and wrongs of an undertaking given by a previous administration, a referendum now would be unacceptably dangerous for Britain, not because the government can't trust the British people to make a sensible decision but because the outcome would be vulnerable to the lies and misrepresentations of the fanatically Europhobic and unscrupulous tabloids, and similarly unprincipled elements of the Conservative party, whose real objections are not to the small print of the treaty but to British membership of the European Union. The prospects of a referendum result that reflected a mature weighing up of the overall pros and cons of ratification, after exhaustive analysis and discussion of the issues and the likely consequences of non-ratification, would be almost nil, given the poisonous atmosphere which would be created for the referendum campaign by the Europhobic rottweilers in Westminster and the media. This is a decision that in a parliamentary democracy should be made by the government and parliament, not by the electorate, which will be free to punish the government and its MPs at the next election if its decision has proved wrong. It's an essential feature of a democracy that a government, provided that it has the support of parliament, should be able to take decisions that may be unpopular at the time but whose results can be judged by the people at election time.
No responsible British government should think for a moment of taking such a risk with Britain's future in Europe and the world as a referendum would entail, and there's no reason to be afraid to say so.
 The words "may well result" in the last sentence of my letter as printed contain effectively the only editorial change made by the Times in the text that I submitted. The fastidious reader will guess, I hope, that I wrote "might well result".
Update (26 Oct 07): I wrote this (including my letter in the Times) before I had seen an admirable article in the New Statesman of 18 October by Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform, which makes exactly the same point: that if Britain alone were to reject the treaty in a referendum, the other EU countries would be highly likely to go ahead without us, making our continued membership of the Union effectively impossible. None of the three biggest parties wants that; no serious newspaper wants it; and I doubt whether any significant section of UK public opinion would want it, at any rate if confronted by the dire consequences of our expulsion. Britain isn't Norway.