I hesitate to return to a topic upon which I have so recently written, but as the LibDems have issued a press release setting out their position on a referendum on the EU Constitution Mark II it is worth just examining some features of it. I make no apologies for reproducing it in full as this avoids the usual ludicrous complaints of words being taken ‘out of context’, the modern politician’s most weaselly way out of foot-in-mouth disease:

Ahead of his Party Conference, which begins tomorrow, Liberal Democrat Leader Menzies Campbell, has called for the public to be given a real choice on the European Union.

Menzies Campbell said:

“It’s time for the political parties to end the shadow boxing on Europe and enter into an honest debate about the European Union.

“We will not know the final shape of the European Reform Treaty until later this year and that is the right time to make the judgement as to whether the changes it proposes necessitate a referendum. My own view is that in its present form the substantial differences between the draft Treaty and the old constitution mean that a referendum is not required.

“But I am not prepared to allow David Cameron to lead the Europhobes and their allies in sections of the media, to distort the debate on Europe without challenge.

“Fifteen years ago Liberal Democrats demanded a referendum on the Maastricht treaty which established the European Union, but the Conservative government refused it. Today David Cameron tries to pose as a champion of the people but in truth he wishes to restrict the British people to a choice on a narrow question about a treaty of far less significance. I don’t intend to let him get away with offering us such a false debate and such a false choice.

“If there is to be a referendum it shouldn’t be restricted to a comparatively minor treaty. It must be a decision about the EU as a whole. Let’s have an honest debate on the European Union followed by a real choice for the British people. That means a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. We would ask the British people the big question – whether to remain in the European Union or not.

“I will lead the Liberal Democrats at the forefront of that debate. We will make the overwhelming case for Europe and trust the people to make the right choice.”

The first thing to note is that Sir Menzies Campbell seems desperate to put off as long as possible any final decision on whether they will support a referendum or not. The excuse given is that the document signed by Vanity Blair at the end of June makes the Treaty “substantially different” from the Constitution upon which the LibDems, like Labour, gave a clear and unequivocal promise to support a referendum at the 2005 General Election. Given that there has been near unanimity amongst European leaders and many pro-EU voices that the new treaty is all but indistinguishable from the present Treaty, and given that much analysis has been done on the similarities of Constitution Mark I to Constitution Mark II (see the excellent comparison done by OpenEurope) it is incumbent upon Campbell, who is, after all, a Scottish QC, to give us a more detailed explanation of what these ‘substantial differences’ are so that we may properly judge his case.

Campbell complains about ‘Cameron and the Europhobes’ distorting the debate about Europe: this surely does not stand up. The issue is a very narrow, though massively important one: (1) is the new Treaty substantially the same as the Constitution rejected by France and The Netherlands in 2004?; (2) if it is substantially the same, then those parties which have promised in their manifestos that they would support a referendum upon it must be held to their promise.

It is. moreover, manifestly disingenuous for Campbell to call Cameron and the Conservative Party ‘Europhobe’ when the party’s official policy is for the UK to remain in the EU though challenging the nature of the relationship with it. Can Campbell point to any official Conservative statement which suggests otherwise? I suggest the answer is a resounding ‘No’ which means that the whole premise of his argument for a referendum on the whole principle of us being in the EU is fatally flawed.

Campbell says the present Treaty is one of far less significance than that issue. I wonder if he has actually read the treaty and any of the analysis of it. It is a matter of note that, whilst its supporters glibly assert it is a different treaty in form, substance and effect, there has been no analysis done which supports that contention, no analysis which challenges that done by such as OpenEurope and EU Referendum. All the detailed analysis done asserts that the effect of the Constitution Mark II is to transfer massive amounts of power away from the nation state members and to give the EU all the powers and attributes of a sovereign government, with the loss of the national veto in some 60 areas, many of them of considerable significance. On the pro-Treaty side no such analysis has yet appeared which really rather suggests that their case is as thin as a gnat’s kneecap.

The LibDem’s current position betrays their concern that they are losing the argument on the issue of a referendum and that their next line of defence is to turn this into an argument about the EU as a whole. They know full well that damage is being done to Gordon Brown because of his dishonourable position so they too are now trying to weasel out of their particular piece of dishonour by trying to convert the argument into something which it is not.

That they are squirming on the end of a sharp stick just at the moment is evidenced by the head line covering this piece on Liberal Democrat Voice (here) which must qualify for The Josef Goebbels Doublespeak of The Year Award:

“Ming speaks out on Euro Referendum –
“We Must Have A Vote”

As dissemblance goes, this is a half-pounder with cheese whopper, suggesting as it does that Campbell is in favour of a vote on the Treaty when in fact his position is diametrically the opposite. For brass nerve, this takes some beating!

This will not do. Sir Menzies Campbell cannot be allowed, surely, to get away with his claim of substantial differences: he must set out what he claims are those differences so that we may judge his assertions for what they are. And telling us that they have binned the anthem and the flag and the word ‘constitution’ will not do, nor will trotting out the singularly psittacine mantra of ‘the constitutional concept is abandoned’.