In case you missed it (and chances are that you did), last night's debate in the Lords on the Government's proposed EU Bill and 'referendum lock' was a bizarre affair, with many of the peers literally being all over the place. For a while there, it reminded us of some of the debates we've come across in the European Parliament - in many cases, what was said didn't actually correspond to anything taking place in the real world, nor any shade of public opinion.
We have looked at the 'referendum lock', which we're broadly in support of, on several occasions and argued that it would have been a much better 'lock' if it had incorporated the transfer of crime, justice and immigration laws - the Coalition has said it will continue to make its decisions to 'opt in' to these new laws on a case-by-case basis (and it continues to do so in roughly two-thirds of the cases it has the opportunity), rather than via a formal mechanism that could give MPs and the electorate some control over these transfers of power.
But back to the debate. A sign that something is broadly hitting the right note is when it is attacked from both sides. The Bill has been attacked for both preventing any future EU integration and as a sell-out by those who feel it won't stop the transfer of powers to Brussels (many of these people's real problem with the 'referendum lock' is that it doesn't roll back the existing transfers of power, which it was never designed to do) . Now, surely, both cannot be right.
Former Tory Minister and Conservative peer Lord Deben was seemingly having a particularly bad day, suggesting that the Government was pandering to "head-bangers". He added that he was "ashamed" of the Government's plans to hold referendums on whether to approve new EU treaties or major changes to existing ones and promised to vote against the legislation "again and again and again" unless changes were made.
The irony of an unelected peer being "ashamed" to consult the British people on major transfers of power to the EU (including the unelected Commission and unelected ECJ) - seems to have been lost on the noble Lord Deben. This is the full quote:
I do not believe in referenda in any circumstances. They are wholly unsuitable in a parliamentary democracy; they are a foreign invention used by people for ulterior motives; and they have never been part of the sort of society in which we live. I am ashamed that my Government have brought this forward.Er, out of touch? The argument that the Bill would lead to referenda being held on every minutiae of EU policy seems to have gained credence amongst the peers discussing it yesterday. The only problem is, this argument is absolute nonsense, which anyone who has followed just a bit of EU politics over recent years would realise.
The Bill only covers transfers of competence under a new treaty or through changing the existing treaties - some of the major the "passerelle" clauses will also trigger a referendum. But there are a lot of stuff that won't trigger a public vote, because of what the EU already can do within its existing legal framework.
To get an idea of the kind of action that the EU can take without touching the Treaties, take the creation of the eurozone's €60bn temporary bailout fund, the EFSM. The hugely controversial decision to reinterpret EU law, through a qualified majority vote, and ignore the existing "no bail-out" clauses in the Treaties did not require a treaty change and therefore wouldn't have been caught by the lock. Or take the creation of three new EU financial supervisors, with binding powers over national authorities - again, that decision was taken by a qualified majority vote. A Treaty change wasn't even on the cards.
Rather than trading in hyperbole, Peers should focus on the meat of the Bill and seek to improve it, so that some trust can be restored in politics. Realising that European and British politics have moved on since the 70s/80s/90s (take your pick) would be a good place to start.
Incidentally, if ever you thought that the Lords were more mature than their counterparts in the Commons and less susceptible to ‘Punch and Judy’ knockabout, check out these comments from Lord Kinnock (whose family we’d point out earned a tidy £10m at taxpayers' expense during and after its stint in Brussels) directed at UKIP peer Lord Pearson:
My Lords, when the noble Lord, Lord Pearson of Rannoch, says that he wants to stick to his guns, I am inclined to hope that he goes very near to the muzzle of those guns-indeed, just in front-because that would be a suitable location.Now that’s not very nice, is it Neil?