United Kingdom European Constitution referendum
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|National referendums on the
|France||No by 55%. 69% turnout.|
|Luxembourg||Yes by 57%. 88% turnout.|
|Netherlands||No by 62%. 63% turnout.|
|Spain||Yes by 77%. 42% turnout.|
A referendum was expected to take place in the United Kingdom in 2006 to decide whether the country should ratify the proposed Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe. However, following the rejection of the Constitution by similar referendums in France in May 2005 and the Netherlands in June 2005, the UK vote was postponed indefinitely. The question was rendered moot when the constitution was superseded by the Treaty of Lisbon, which Parliament ratified in 2008 without holding a referendum.
As negotiations finalising the text of the proposed constitution drew to a close in early 2004, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, had consistently denied the need for a referendum on its ratification. However, on 20 April 2004, he announced in the House of Commons that a referendum would in fact be held, assuming the treaty was accepted by the European Council.
In his Commons address, Blair stated that what he regards as myths about the European Union, were so prevalent that "it is right to confront this campaign [of myth-making] head-on". Blair made no specific reference to a referendum – indeed observers pointed out that Blair refrained from using words such as "referendum" and "plebiscite" at all, instead leaving the explicit announcement to a White Paper published simultaneously by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary.
Initial reaction amongst the opposition was three-fold. Firstly, the Conservatives were pleased as they felt they had forced Tony Blair into a U-turn. For example Michael Howard, the Leader of the Opposition, said "Who will ever trust you again?" in his response to Blair's statement. In response, opponents of Howard have said that he himself has done a U-turn by asking for a referendum at all. Howard was a member of the Conservative Government that rejected calls for a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1993. This treaty conferred many new competences on the Union, something that the new constitution does not do; this has led to some commentators arguing that it is inconsistent to demand a referendum on the constitutional treaty when one was not held on the Maastricht Treaty.
Secondly, the Conservative Party repeated its opposition to such a constitution which it sees as involving an unacceptable loss of sovereignty. (See Controversy over the new constitution.)
They then wanted to know about the timing of the referendum and the precise wording of its question. Commentators expected that a referendum would not be held until after the next General Election, which was expected to take place in 2005. They suggested that the Labour Party would want to minimise the impact of the issue of Europe on the election campaign by saying "we can discuss that at the referendum".
Some pro-Europeans believe this is because much of the press (e.g. papers owned by News International) in the UK opposes the treaty, as referred to by Blair above. Others refer to what they see as a large amount of misinformation and confusion about what the proposed treaty actually contains, coupled with a widespread scepticism about all things linked with the European Union.
Supporters of the Government have said that a referendum would need to be held after sufficient parliamentary time has been devoted to analysing the text, thus forcing a delay until after the election. Conversely, the Conservatives rejected this, saying that sufficient scrutiny could be given, and a referendum held, in the autumn and winter of 2004.
The Conservatives have also suggestedthat if the Treaty were rejected, the current government would repeat the referendum until it got its desired result. In the days after the announcement of the vote, government policy was not immediately clear on this issue: it initially said that the UK would then be in the same position as Ireland was, after it rejected the Nice treaty. Ireland subsequently adopted that treaty after a second referendum, suggesting that Britain may attempt to do the same. Denmark also held two referendums before accepting the Maastricht treaty.
However, at his usual monthly news conference on 22 April, Blair said: "If the British people vote 'no', they vote 'no'. You can't keep bringing it back until they vote 'yes'." BBC Radio 4 and The Times have subsequently reported some back-tracking on this issue from "Number 10" (presumably the press office). Despite Blair's assertions (he has made several other, similar statements), the position remains not entirely clear.
After the agreement of the final constitution draft, Blair announced his full support for it, claiming that it protects the national veto on sensitive issues such as tax, social policy, defence and foreign policy.
On 29 October 2004, the Foreign Secretary Jack Straw ruled out holding a referendum in 2005 as this would coincide with the UK holding the rotating presidency of the Council of the European Union. He said that the referendum would be held in early 2006, providing Labour were re-elected in the 2005 general election.
A bill authorising the referendum was announced in the Queen's Speech of 23 November 2004.
On 26 January 2005 the government announced that the question asked in the referendum will be: "Should the United Kingdom approve the treaty establishing a constitution for the European Union?" Theresa May, Shadow Secretary of State for the Family, described the question as "fair".
Electoral Commission rules
The rules governing how British referendums are held are determined by the Electoral Commission. The Commission will judge whether the question asked is clear and unbiased and make recommendations, but Parliament will make the final decision. Some concern has already been raised that a simple yes/no question will bias the poll in favour of a positive vote, as people may have an instinctive desire to respond positively, all other things being equal. The Commission chairman, Sam Younger, who will act as counting officer for the vote, has said that he will be able to make further recommendations once he has observed referendums taking place in English regions this autumn.
The Commission also places caps on the amount that can be spent by each side of the debate. Two official "designated organisations", one for each side of the debate, will be able to spend at most £5m campaigning, of which up to £600,000 could come from public funds. These organisations will also be entitled to free broadcasts and mail shots. The names and leaders of the organisations have not yet been named. All other interested parties will be able to spend at most £500,000 and must be registered with the Commission if they receive any single donation in excess of £10,000.
In an interview with The Times on 24 April 2004, Sam Younger, chairman of the British Electoral Commission, said the referendum legislation was unworkable: "There is nothing to stop someone with say, £10 million, creating 20 different groups all of which could spend £500,000. That could distort the whole campaign. The legislation is flawed".
Sam Younger also said that enforcing the regulations would be difficult, both because it would not possible to prove the spending limits had been broken until the referendum was over, by which time the campaign groups involved would have been dissolved, and because the maximum fine of £5,000 was too low to deter potential offenders.
Furthermore, the Government is permitted to publish information publicising its view, with no spending limit, until 28 days before the poll. The spending of all other groups involved will be capped for 70 days before the poll. Sam Younger said the same campaign restrictions should apply to the Government as to everyone else.
Every opinion poll on how people would vote in a referendum pointed to a "no" vote.
ICM asked 1,000 voters in the third week of May 2005: “If there were a referendum tomorrow, would you vote for Britain to sign up to the European Constitution or not?”: 57% said no, 24% said yes, and 19% said that they did not know.
Party positions on Constitution
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As with the 1975 vote, there is a broad range of left and right wing parties in the No camp. In the February 1974 general election, Conservative right-winger Enoch Powell supported Labour's calls for a referendum and for a "no" vote, even calling on Conservative voters to vote Labour to ensure the vote took place. This time, the Conservative and other right-wing/Eurosceptic parties share their opposition to the treaty with Leftist parties who believe that the treaty will cement the Classical reCapitalist economic model that they believe the EU follows.
- Conservative Party
- United Kingdom Independence Party
- Democratic Unionist Party
- Ulster Unionist Party
- Green Party of England and Wales
Following the French and Dutch rejection of the treaty, Jack Straw announced on 6 June 2005, to the House of Commons, that the plans for the referendum in early 2006 had been shelved.
The issue became moot following the replacement of the proposed constitution with the agreement of the text of the Treaty of Lisbon on 19 October 2007.
- "Blair confirms EU constitution poll". BBC News. 20 April 2004.