Wednesday, March 05, 2008

'No' to Lisbon referendum is a missed opportunity

To throw in my twopence-worth, I can't help thinking the Lib Dems have not only made a tactical mistake tonight, but also lost a strategic opportunity.

For many years Britain's political class has been considerably more Europhile than the electorate appear to be, at least judging by opinion polls.

Yet on the one occasion the electorate were called upon to vote about Europe they delivered an unexpectedly large pro-EEC (as it was then) majority. In recent times various referendum pledges have taken the sting out of the European issue at election time.

But the gap between politicians and public on the issue remains, and it is unhealthy for our political system, creating the impression that Europe is a kind of organised conspiracy against the public.

If the Lisbon treaty really is less of a big deal than the abortive constitution, a tidying up exercise more than anything, then surely this was the best opportunity for pro-Europeans to win a referendum. With no great principle at stake, a Yes campaign could explain the practicalities and hope for victory. This would quieten the Eurosceptics at least for a while.

By contast if the pro-Europeans lost the vote then that would put some responsibility on Eurosceptics actually to find a way forward rather than just opposing. I suspect that had the Conservatives been in power they would have ended up agreeing to something very similar to Lisbon.

The point is that at some point pro-Europeans will have to stand and fight, and this was probably the best chance to do that, so it's an opportunity missed.

Amid all this the policy we actually have for an in or out referendum on the EU makes very little sense at all. It would solve nothing, since even the Conservatives support EU membership, none but a small number of obsessives at either end of the political spectrum actually want us out of the EU.

From the evidence of Alastair Carmichael's interview, the parliamentary appear to be avoiding bitterness and recriminations. And Nick Clegg has made just about the best possible fist of defending a weak policy. But much as it pains me to say it, the rebels were right.

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