Friday, August 16, 2013
   
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David Heath's Column 16/05/13

 

As most people know, I am not the biggest fan of the European Union in its current form. I have been consistently against joining the euro, with I think abundant justification in recent years, and I have always argued that the British people should be given the opportunity to express their views about British membership of the EU in a referendum. Indeed, I voted for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, was summarily sacked and spent a couple of years on the back benches in consequence. But having said all that I am bemused by the current eruptions and tergiversations in the Conservative party which seems to me to bear all the hallmarks of obsession or hysterical panic.

 

It is quite extraordinary to have members of a government party voting, effectively, against the Queen’s speech by supporting a critical amendment. It is even more extraordinary to have ministers in that government not supporting  the very legislative programme that they themselves agreed only a week or so ago. If there was a deep area of division between the parties in the coalition then perhaps I could understand it. But there wasn’t a terse stand-off on the subject of referendum legislation, with the Deputy Prime Minister blocking the Conservatives’ wishes. Far from it.  No such legislation was ever entertained. Why? For one simple reason. We’ve already done it.

 

And this is what I really don’t understand. Two years ago we spent some time passing through legislation, the European Union Act 2011. It requires that if there are any significant changes to our relationship with the EU then a referendum to agree those changes would be triggered. It was introduced by the Conservative Foreign Secretary William Hague, and supported by both parties in the government. And it is binding on any future government unless they repeal it.

 

Any such referendum would, of course, be in effect an in-out referendum, because if the UK were to reject new constitutional arrangements then the government would either have to renegotiate new terms which were acceptable or secure the country’s departure from the union. And that has to be taken with the Prime Minister’s initiative to look at all aspects of the functioning of the EU to see where it can be improved. I fully support that. We need the structures of the EU to be more democratic, more transparent, less bureaucratic, and allowing far more to be done at national and local level. The package that results would inevitably trigger a referendum at that point, probably in 2016.

 

So why on earth would we need to repeat that exercise putting through another bill to the same effect? It’s not as if we haven’t got plenty enough else on our plate at the moment. The answer, of course, is that this is all about the obsessive interests of a few who think and talk about little else than this country’s relationship to Europe. That is not a preoccupation, as polls frequently remind us, of the vast majority of our fellow citizens who are much more concerned about their jobs, their health, their children’s education and their safety on the street.

 

I still want people to have their say on Europe. But this is no way to go about it.

 

David in Parliament

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