United Kingdom European Constitution referendum

United Kingdom European Constitution referendum

The United Kingdom referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe was expected to take place in 2006 to decide whether the United Kingdom should ratify the proposed Constitution of the European Union. Following the rejection of the Constitution by voters in France in May 2005 and in the Netherlands in June 2005, the referendum was postponed indefinitely.

On 20 April 2004, the then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Tony Blair, announced in the House of Commons that the United Kingdom would hold a referendum on its ratification of the proposed Treaty establishing a constitution for Europe when it was agreed by the European Council. Such agreement was reached in June 2004, but no firm date was set for the referendum.

On 29 October 2004, the Foreign secretary Jack Straw said that the referendum would be held in early 2006, providing Labour were re-elected in the 2005 general election. He ruled out 2005 as this would coincide with the UK holding the EU presidency.

On 23 November 2004 in the Queen's Speech it was announced that a bill paving the way for a referendum on the EU Constitution would be brought before Parliament. 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 redundant following the replacement of the proposed constitution with the agreement of the text of the Treaty of Lisbon on 19 October 2007.

Tony Blair's reasons for a referendum

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 more specific reference to a referendum other than that in his speech – indeed observers were keen to point out that Blair avoided using the words such as "referendum" and "plebiscite" at all. The explicit announcement was made in a White Paper published simultaneously by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary.

In the same speech, Blair made clear that he and his Government would be urging people to make a "Yes, accept the constitution" vote, "provided the treaty embodies the essential British positions". Since the agreement of the final draft, Blair has announced that it does indeed embody these positions in his opinion, since he claims that it protects the national veto on sensitive issues such as tax, social policy, defence and foreign policy.

Opposition reaction

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 has since taken place on 5 May 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. This did not happen, and the Queen's Speech on 23 November 2004 it was announced that a Bill paving the way for a referendum on whether the United Kingdom should adopt the EU Constitution.

The Conservatives have also suggested that 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 April 22, 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.

The issues

The debate prior to the referendum is likely to centre on:
* The question of whether the new constitution involves an unacceptable loss of the UK's sovereignty: see Controversy over the new constitution.
* The new provisions in the constitution and whether they are acceptable: see New provisions in the constitution.

How the vote would have worked

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".

A company called Elections UK would have tried to encourage people to vote and to participate in the debate.

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 (effectively the House of Commons) 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.

Commentary and criticism of these rules

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.

Opinion polls

Every opinion poll on how people would vote in a referendum so far has 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. Therefore excluding the "don't know" vote, the latest poll indicates a result of 70% against, 30% supporting, the constitution in the possible referendum.

Party positions on Constitution

As with the 1975 vote, there is a broad range of left and right wing parties in the No camp. In 1975, Tory right-winger Enoch Powell supported Labour's calls for a referendum and for a "no" vote, even calling on Tory 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.


*Liberal Democrats
*Social Democratic and Labour Party
*Scottish Green Party
*Scottish National Party


*United Kingdom Independence Party
*British National Party
*One London
*Green Party of England and Wales
*RESPECT The Unity Coalition
*Socialist Labour Party
*Democratic Unionist Party
*Ulster Unionist Party
*Scottish Unionist Party
*National Front
*Solidarity (Scotland)
*Scottish Socialist Party
*English Democrats
*Progressive Unionist Party
*UK Unionist Party

Unofficial referendums

In September 2007, coinciding with the start of the Labour Party Conference in Bournemouth, "The Sun" newspaper started an online petition for a referendum on the EU Constitution. [ [http://www.thesun.co.uk/eu The EU Referendum - You decide (The Sun Online)] ] According to the paper, Prime Minister Gordon Brown "hasn't ruled out" a referendum on the new EU constitution". [ [http://www.thesun.co.uk/article/0,,2004240000-2007280076,00.html EU referendum is Gord's ace (The Sun Online)] ]

The question put to voters was::"Should the United Kingdom approve the Treaty establishing a Constitution for the European Union?"


ee also

* Referendums in the United Kingdom

External links

* [http://www.iwantareferendum.com I want a Referendum]
* [http://www.nocampaign.com/ The 'no' campaign]
* [http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/cm200405/cmbills/045/05045.1-7.html Parliament: European Union Bill]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3642713.stm Prime Minister announces the referendum]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3643357.stm The Electoral Commission's role]
* [http://www.parliament.the-stationery-office.co.uk/pa/ld199900/ldhansrd/pdvn/lds04/text/40420-04.htm Discussion in the House of Lords]
* [http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/uk_politics/3964211.stm BBC News: Europe vote 'early 2006' - Straw]
* [http://www.euobserver.com/?sid=9&aid=17721 EUobserver: Blair cautious on setting date for referendum]

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