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On referendums*

J Clive Matthews
21 September 2007

With calls for a UK referendum on the new EU reform treaty continuing to grow, the objections to such plebiscites raised by Amato and Giscard d'Estaing at the Tomorrow's Europe launch bear considering.

Amato argued that the referendum calls are designed purely to embarrass Gordon Brown, Giscard that for one EU member state to hold back all the rest would be just as undemocratic as not holding a vote at all, as the will of the European majority would be subverted.

No one seriously believes that a UK referendum on the reform treaty is winnable. If a vote is held, Britain will be forced to veto, and the EU will have to try yet again.

For some advocates of a referendum, this is what they want - a no vote to force a more ambitious treaty to emerge from the ashes. For others, they seek a no to cast doubt on the UK's membership of the EU in the hope that the government is forced to withdraw. Yet others - notably the Conservatives and Lib Dems - seem to be acting purely on the motives suspected by Amato, to embarass Gordon Brown (because both parties favour continued EU membership and, if they thought about it for a moment, would realise that a referendum will give a huge boost to anti-EU voices - a particular danger for the Tories).

So, how to reconcile the need for democratic legitimacy with the problems of voting in two different constituencies at the same time - one national, one pan-European - but with only one vote?

How to ensure that a referendum on this particular international treaty doesn't set a precedent forcing the government to hold yet more polls on every subsequent international treaty, related to the EU or otherwise? A referendum on Kyoto? How about one on nuclear test bans? United Nations security council resolutions?

And - most importantly - how to ensure that voters in a referendum are voting on the issue at hand from a position of knowledge?

* or should that be referenda?

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