Saturday, June 21, 2008

Rifkind: How the Irish No Vote may help the Tories

Malcolm Rifkind on the Irish No vote in a European Affairs discussion last week.

I have highlighted the most important point which is that the No Vote may delay the ratification of the treaty beyond the length of the current Labour Government. The Conservatives will then be free to put the Lisbon Treaty to a Referendum. We can only hope this is true and the public can have their promised vote.

The hon. Member for Wakefield (Mary Creagh) ended her speech with a quotation; perhaps I may begin with one from many years ago. G. K. Chesterton said:

"The golden age of the good European is...a place where people will love each other; not...a place where they will be each other."

Although he was clearly not envisaging the European Union, there is a resonance between his words and the debate here and throughout Europe on the kind of Europe that we are trying to create. Is it a Europe of close co-operation, close friendship and close amity with the wider world, or a Europe that is constantly seeking further integration with some distant aspiration and ideal? Debates in Britain and elsewhere in Europe increasingly show that the wider public simply do not give their consent to the more integrated type of Europe that many of its founding fathers assumed would be Europe's destiny, and to which many in Europe, particularly continental Europe, still aspire.

Let me comment on some of the conclusions and implications that we ought to draw from the referendum in Ireland. My first point is potentially of domestic significance. If the Irish Government were to propose holding a second referendum at some future date, it would, at the very least, mean a major delay before final implementation of the new treaty; that would be an unavoidable consequence of the Irish saying that they wished to hold a second referendum. It would be perhaps another year, a year and a half, or even two years before all countries could ratify. Before then, there will almost certainly be a United Kingdom general election. If that led to a change of Government, one consequence would be that even if the treaty had been ratified in the United Kingdom, if it had not come into effect because an Irish referendum had not yet taken place, an incoming Conservative Government could reopen the whole issue by calling a referendum. That was not true until last week. Even if we had ratified, we could de-ratify if the treaty had not yet come into effect.

I have made clear my view that it would be absurd for a future Conservative Government to hold a referendum if the treaty had already come into effect; that would be a pointless exercise, and would be wrought with great difficulties. If, however, the treaty had not come into effect because the Irish had not ratified, my Front-Bench colleagues would be perfectly entitled to say, "The United Kingdom made a commitment that the British would have a choice", and that the matter should not simply be up to the Government." That is a profound consequence of what happened last week.

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