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Government should persuade us to support the Lisbon treaty - not tell us it is none of our business

4 March 2008

Suzy Dean (London, The Manifesto Club): Following last Wednesday's demonstration outside Parliament for a referendum on the EU constitution (Lisbon Treaty), by the aptly named ‘I want a referendum' campaign group, debate continues this week in Parliament over whether the new treaty should be put to referendum or not - finishing in a vote tomorrow.In 2005, shortly after the French and Dutch rejected the EU constitution in a referendum, all parties promised the UK a referendum as well. But now, some three years later, Labour are arguing that the Lisbon treaty is substantially different from the 2005 constitution and so no referendum is necessary. They maintain that Parliament should have the final say, while the Tories, along with a number of Liberal and Labour MP's continue to push for a referendum on the basis that the 2005 and 2008 EU constitutions are almost identical.

At a time when democracy seems to be failing - there is low voter turnout and widespread political apathy - a referendum could give citizens back some much needed control over the direction of the EU, and force democratic debate on an issue that up until now has existed beyond national politics. A referendum would also ask some difficult, but much needed, questions about our relationship with, and the meaning of, the EU.

For many people that consider themselves Europeans, there is as much reason to the reject the EU as for those that are very nationalistic: because the EU is highly undemocratic. For one thing, people are unable to make or change a single EU law. The EU has always existing above and beyond democratic control of the states that it polices and is both highly centralised and bureaucratic. The unelected commission control a 100 billion euro budget without any real accountability, which removes an enormous amount of power from the people it governs. The EU has also failed to live up to political expectations, and far from fostering an inspiring, universal politics it has failed to have any broader political meaning at all.

In this vein, Nick Clegg's suggestion to have a referendum over whether we want to be part of the EU rather than whether we want to adhere to the Lisbon Treaty is right. A referendum questioning the EU's future would either abolish the EU by democratic vote or force it to democratise, both of which would be a preferable to the current state of affairs.

Government reluctance to bring the EU constitution to a direct public vote stems from their fear of the people voting against it. Previous referendums, such as those over devolution, were fairly predictable and so the issue was ‘fit' for referendum and used to prove how decentralised and democratic the government could be. In stark contrast, politicians are fighting to not let people have a referendum over the EU constitution at all. Far from being focused on persuading us to support the Lisbon Treaty, the government are taking time to make a case for why the Lisbon Treaty is none of our business. The very politicians who complain that British citizens are largely disengaged are ignoring the opportunity and general mood for real democratic engagement. As I have argued elsewhere on OurKingdom, this is largely because although politicians want us to be engaged, they want us to be engaged only where it suits them.

Government reluctance to let people decide on the EU constitution reinforces the widespread belief that the government not only thinks the population stupid, but doesn't take democracy very seriously. This is something that we should all challenge. The referendum would improve democracy by giving people direct control over a truly significant issue. Whether we have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, or indeed our entire future with the EU, a real debate on what the EU is and what we want it to be is essential for the next phase of our involvement with it.

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