European referendum: what’s going on?

As Lib Dem Voice and others have covered this week, the Liberal Democrat policy on a Euro-referendum – or not – has been in the news. Understandably the media reports have caused some confusion over what the party’s current policy is – and on this occasion I don’t think the media is to blame.

The party’s policy has been that if there is to be a European referendum, it should be an in/out referendum. However, lurking behind the word “if” were two different points of view earlier this year. One group of people believed that an in/out referendum was a good idea, regardless of what happened to Lisbon and so on. Another group of people didn’t want an in/out referendum – but were willing to put up with one as the lesser of two evils in the context of the debate over the Lisbon Treaty and referendums.

In the run-up to the June Euro-elections the wider political context meant that the differences between believing “if…” and believing “if… (and I really want one)” were easily smoothed over.

However, having talked to a range of people about what has happened since June, two things are clear. First, some of the keenest supporters of in/out referendum are no longer in the posts they were. Second, with Lisbon ratified and the Conservatives easing off their referendum demands, there is now a big difference between the two view points – and it’s one that can’t simply be smoothed over.

Hence there’s a policy decision up for debate in the Liberal Democrats. The key question will be what goes in the general election manifesto and that has not yet been decided.

Ming Campbell has staked out his view, arguing there’s no appetite for a referendum in the country and we should therefore let the matter drop (even if technically, were a referendum to suddenly come out of nowhere, we’d still want an in/out one). On the other hand, many people in the party argued for an in/out referendum on the basis of arguments which are as good now as they were earlier in the year.

As for Nick Clegg’s view on the matter? He has stuck very closely to a form of words that avoids committing himself one way or the other on the question of whether or not he believes there should still be a referendum, only saying that if there is one it should be in/out. He’s therefore not come down on one side or the other of this party policy debate – which should make for a better debate than if it were one of for or against the party leader.

That’s why I’m fairly relaxed about this. There’s a debate to be had. The manifesto process is a fairly democratic one and it’ll come to a decision. My one caveat is that there are better ways to start off the debate in public – and in particular better ways to respect the many hours many members and supporters have put in to campaigning on the issue in the previous months. But on the substantive issue, if you have a strong view one way or the other – get lobbying.


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