Burning issue: Should Britain hold a referendum on the EU reform treaty?

NOEdward Davey MP, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman

Ever since the Maastricht Treaty was signed in 1992, debate on Europe has served the British public badly. Voters have been left alienated, bored and confused in equal measure.

Yet without successive European treaties there would now be no single market, no Europe-wide green laws and no co-operation on cross-border crime.

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The Lisbon Treaty is a sensible next step, streamlining EU institutions to cope with the enlargement from 15 to 27 member states.

While there are many similarities with the failed constitutional treaty, the significance of the differences has been deliberately downplayed by the Eurosceptics. These differences are critical.

The fundamental difference is that a referendum on the constitutional treaty would have been a vote on a document containing the treaties of Rome, Maastricht, the Single European Act, Amsterdam and Nice – since it repealed all previous treaties. In other words, a referendum on the constitutional treaty would have been a vote on the EU. Lisbon is, in contrast, a standard amending treaty, with much less constitutional effect than Maastricht, on which the Conservatives denied people a vote.

Under Charles Kennedy, Liberal Democrats made it clear that a referendum on the constitution would in essence be a referendum on Britain's membership of the EU. Indeed, the case for an "in/out" referendum has become much stronger over time, given the accumulation of all European treaty change since Britain joined. Moreover, since the last referendum on Europe was held over 30 years ago, it is surely time to ask a new generation of voters their views.


William Hague MP, Conservative shadow foreign secretary

The case for a referendum on the new EU treaty is clear and simple. At the last election every major political party promised a referendum on the EU constitution. It has been almost universally accepted that this treaty is, in substance, virtually the same as the EU constitution.

So there can be no doubt that every party's election manifesto pledge applies fully to this treaty. And there are other powerful reasons why those promises must be honoured.

First, trust in politics has never been lower. We cannot hope to restore it while political parties blatantly ignore the promises on which they were elected.

Secondly, in the 21st century people want more control over their lives. There could be no better way of reconnecting politics with people on a subject like the EU than listening to what people want. As the new Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg said only last month, we need "a new politics, of politicians who listen to people, not themselves". Yet he, too, now says he will force Lib Dem MPs to vote against a referendum.

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Thirdly, government and MPs have absolutely no democratic mandate to agree to this treaty without consulting the voters. If Gordon Brown gets his way voters would have no chance at all to have their say on this treaty, either at a general election or in a referendum.

Lastly, there is, of course, the fundamental importance of what is in the treaty. This treaty, as in the constitution, would shift a wide range of major powers from Britain to the EU.

Failure to hold a referendum would not only stain politics with the breach of an election promise of the highest importance – it could fatally undermine what little trust there is left in the government.