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FactCheck: who promised Euro vote?

By Channel 4 News

Updated on 05 March 2008

Everyone, and no one. FactCheck explains.

The claim

"The truth is all of us in this House promised a referendum."
David Cameron, Prime Minister's Questions, 5 March 2008

The background

It's a debate that has rumbled on for months. Today, MPs face a crucial vote on Europe, deciding whether to let the British people have their say on an EU treaty.

In October 2004, the 'Treaty Establishing a Constitution for Europewas signed. It would have superseded existing EU treaties and, some said, pave the way for a United States of Europe.

However, the constitution was rejected in France and the Netherlands.

From its ashes came the Reform Treaty - or Lisbon Treaty - which Gordon Brown was famously late to sign in December 2007.

It's on a bill to accept this treaty, that the commons is voting this evening.

David Cameron claimed earlier today that everyone in parliament had promised a to put the issue to a referendum.

Did they?

The analysis

Let's go back to 2005 and look at the major parties' election manifestos.The stances on Europe differ, but the R word crops up in all three documents.

Labour, in a statement subsequently used against them by shadow foreign secretary William Hague, said:

"We will put [the constitutional treaty] to the British people in a referendum and campaign whole-heartedly for a 'Yes' vote to keep Britain a leading nation in Europe."

Let's go back to 2005 and look at the major parties' election manifestos.The stances on Europe differ, but the R word crops up in all three documents.

The constitutional treaty, the Labour manifesto manifesto said, would set out what the EU can and cannot do; strengthens the voice of national parliaments and governments in EU affairs; and ensures that Britain keeps control of key national interests like foreign policy, taxation, social security and defence.

The Conservatives pledged their support for EU reform, calling for the union to move in a "flexible, liberal and decentralised direction".

And on the constitution: "We oppose the EU Constitution and would give the British people the chance to reject its provisions in a referendum within six months of the general election."

The Lib Dems were "clear in our support for the constitution, which we believe is in Britain's interest - but ratification must be subject to a referendum of the British people."

So are the parties breaking these promises? Here's where it all gets murkier.

France and the Netherlands both held votes before Britain had even dusted off the ballot boxes. Both rejected the constitution - and so the version on which the British people were promised a vote eventually fell by the EU wayside.

In summer 2007, the EU introduced a mandate that said: "The constitutional concept, which consisted in repealing all existing treaties and replacing them by a single text called 'constitution', is abandoned."

This seems to sound the death knell of the constitution pretty unequivocally.

The Lisbon treaty amends the 1957 Rome Treaty, which came into brought into being the EEC (the forerunner to the EU). This has been amended without recourse to referenda before, such as in Maastricht, 1992 and the Treaty of Nice in 2001.

However, as a Commons research paper points out: "The content of the treaty, though not its structure, is similar in a great many respects to the EU Constitution."

And it's this that gives detractors their ammunition.

Open Europe, an anti-EU thinktank, has published the constitution and treaty side by side - and points out that 90 per cent of the content is the same.

But the Government holds that the significant, constitutional content has gone - the new treaty amends existing EU legislation, rather than replacing it.

The Lib Dems broke ranks last autumn, sidestepping the issue to call instead for a referendum on EU membership.

"It's time for the political parties to end the shadow boxing on Europe and enter into an honest debate about the EU,'' said then-leader Menzies Campbell in September.

The verdict

All the major parties promised a referendum on the EU constitution. But these manifesto commitments were specific - no party promised a referendum on EU membership in general, or on other European treaties.

And so, technically, none of them promised a referendum on the Lisbon treaty - it didn't exist.

It could be argued that, to honour the spirit of the manifestos, they should be offering people a vote on the next closest thing - the Lisbon Treaty.

And if the Lib Dems believe the public deserves a referendum on EU membership, it could also be argued that they should also be giving the people the chance to have their say on this treaty, rather than abstaining from today's vote.

But these arguments aren't watertight. Britain rarely holds referenda - unlike, say, Ireland. And it can also be argued that, with its constitutional implications removed, there's no incentive to put the treaty to the public vote.

FactCheck rating: 2.5

13 Jun 2007: FactCheck - did Blair promise Euro referendum?
Prime Minister's Questions, 5 March 2008
Lib Dem manifesto, 2005
Conservatives manifesto, 2005
Commons research paper: European Union (Amendment) Bill
Open Europe

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