UK MPs reject referendum on EU Treaty

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MPs in the UK have rejected a proposal put forward by the opposition Conservatives to hold a popular referendum on the Treaty of Lisbon, paving the way for the text to be ratified via parliamentary vote.

The House of Commons last night (5 March) turned down a Conservative amendment to the EU Treaty Bill, which called for a referendum, by a narrow majority of 311 votes to 248, a margin of just 63. 

29 Labour MPs defied the government by backing the bill, while three Conservatives rejected the amendment, rebelling against their leader David Cameron. 

Prime Minister Gordon Brown argues there is no need for a referendum on the treaty as it bears little resemblance to the abandoned constitution and barely touches on British sovereignty. “If this was a constitutional treaty, we would hold a referendum,” he said before the vote. 

Brown has been under severe pressure from opposition parties and campaign groups to hold a popular vote on the treaty ever since he signed the text last December (see EURACTIV 21/01/08). Meanwhile, parliamentary committees have already been discussing the treaty on an issue-by-issue basis for a month. 

Opposition leader David Cameron said the decision means “people feel cheated and cynical because promises made are promises being broken”. He was referring to commitments by Labour, the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats to hold a referendum on the abandoned Constitutional Treaty in their manifestos for the 2005 general election. 

The issue split the Liberal Democrat party, whose leader Nick Clegg had ordered his MPs to abstain from yesterday’s vote. Yet a quarter of Lib Dem MPs defied the order and voted in favour of a referendum, with three frontbenchers resigning to do so. 

Clegg agrees with the government’s stance on the Lisbon Treaty, but instead wants a referendum on Britain’s EU membership to end ambiguities in the country’s relationship with Europe. “The prime minister once said that he would build a wider pro-European movement in Britain,” which would not be achieved by blocking “the in-out referendum that the British people really want,” he said. 

Conservatives however said they would continue their fight for a referendum on the treaty, with Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague saying he had his hopes pinned on the House of Lords to “hold the government to their manifesto commitment”. He referred to the “convention that the House of Lords does not stand in the way of manifesto commitments”.  

Meanwhile, a February survey by the ‘I Want a Referendum’ campaign claims that 88% of the UK public want to vote on the treaty. Campaign chairman Derek Scott said “Labour MPs who voted with their conscience and against the government deserve congratulations,” while “those MPs who voted to deny their citizens a say should be deeply ashamed of themselves”. 

The Treaty of Lisbon must be ratified by all 27 EU member states for it to come into force. Most will do so by via their national parliaments, with Ireland the only country committed to holding a referendum under the terms of its constitution (see EURACTIV 03/03/08). Thus far, just France, Romania, Slovenia, Malta and Hungary have ratified the treaty, all five doing so by parliamentary vote (our Links Dossier gathers our related coverage). 

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