Sceptics bare teeth over British EU referendum plans

11th January 2011, Comments 0 comments

British lawmakers debated Tuesday a planned law that would trigger a referendum on any EU treaty changes in a reminder of the tensions that still exist on Europe within the governing Conservatives.

A significant number of Prime Minister David Cameron's own MPs are prepared to rebel and vote against the European Union Bill, causing a headache for the coalition government.

Divisions within the Conservative Party over Europe played a major role in the downfall of their last two prime ministers, Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

The bill is designed to ensure that any future transfers of powers to Brussels automatically trigger a referendum.

The pledge was a key part of the governing Conservatives' manifesto and was seen by some as a way to keep onside the eurosceptic right wing of the party -- a rump of around 30 MPs who are generally unhappy about being in coalition with the left-leaning Liberal Democrats.

The eurosceptics want the bill toughened up to enforce parliament's sovereignty and give the government no room to wriggle out of the referendum pledge.

David Lidington, the Europe minister, insisted the law would be watertight.

"Any future change to EU treaties, however minor, will be subject to a full act of parliament," he told BBC radio.

"Any extension of EU competencies, (such as) a decision like joining the euro, would have by law to go with a referendum. There would be no wriggle-room for the government.

"And we have two clauses which make it clear that parliament has the final say in deciding whether EU law has effect in the UK."

He dismissed the rebels' fears, saying: "The wriggle-room for ministers is narrowed down to the smallest margin possible."

The bill would enable ministers to avoid a referendum if they judged that the transfer of power was not significant.

The government says this is so they are not required to hold referendums on every relatively minor change to legislation.

The bill also includes a "sovereignty clause", confirming the principle that the London parliament has the final say on EU laws which take effect in Britain.

The clause was debated Tuesday by lawmakers in the House of Commons in what is known as the committee stage. The bill still has to clear several parliamentary hurdles before being adopted.

Veteran eurosceptic Bill Cash tabled a series of amendments to create a "failsafe and a firewall against any attempt by the judiciary to interfere with the sovereignty of this house.

"It is time that we turned the tide and made it clear exactly where we stand.

"For too long we have witnessed further seamless and ceaseless integration and it is time we took a stand -- removing ambiguity and uncertainty and the gradual absorption of the EU into our constitutional DNA."

Wayne David, the opposition Labour party's Europe spokesman, said the clause was "an exercise in smoke and mirrors", aimed at placating Conservative eurosceptics, which Cash and his allies had seen through.

© 2011 AFP

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