Europe: the fault lines open again

THE government saw off a rebellion over Europe last night, winning a crucial vote to repel calls for a referendum on signing up to the EU reform treaty.

In a vote where rebels in all three main parties defied the whips, the government won with a majority of 63. But the issue, which continues to divide parties both internally and across the dispatch box, left a huge split in the ranks of the Liberal Democrats, with three of the party's front-bench spokesmen resigning.

The government's victory will be a huge relief for Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, who saw 25 of his own MPs defy a three-line whip to vote in favour of a referendum. Some 13 Lib Dems, including the three now former front-benchers, Alistair Carmichael, David Heath and Tim Farron, voted with the Tories in calling for a referendum, while a handful of Conservatives voted with the government.

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The SNP MPs also voted against the government, and in favour of a referendum. Among them was the party leader, Alex Salmond, who made a rare appearance at Westminster to cast his vote.

The outcome means the decision on whether to sign up to the controversial treaty, which opponents claim is nothing short of a European Constitution, will now be taken by parliament.

The most potentially toxic of all the heated debates were the internal wrangles facing Nick Clegg, the Lib Dem leader.

Mr Carmichael, his Scottish affairs spokesman, said: "For a front-bench spokesman to defy his party's whip is a serious situation and one which I have not taken lightly. It is not something which can be done while remaining in post.

"Although I do not on this issue agree with my party leader, I remain supportive of his leadership and look forward to continuing to work with him to advance our party's cause, even if this is not to be from the front-bench."

Moments before tendering his resignation, Mr Carmichael, the Orkney and Shetland MP, had told The Scotsman: "I think Nick Clegg is a good leader, but he is a good leader with whom I disagree today."

Mr Clegg said: "I greatly regret the loss of David, Tim and Alistair from the shadow cabinet. They have served with great distinction and commitment.

"However, as they have recognised, the shadow cabinet cannot operate effectively unless the principle of collective responsibility is maintained."

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Across the party divide, hostilities were more transparent, and it was a debate dogged with fiery exchanges.

Even earlier, during Prime Minister's Questions, the issue of Europe dominated, and Mr Brown told David Cameron, the Tory leader: "If this was a constitutional treaty we would hold a referendum."

He said the issue of Europe had been decided more than 30 years ago, and went on: "The Conservative Party leadership is being driven by the Eurosceptics on their back-benches. We need to put the pro-European case in the country. But I have to say to you that to go back to the 1970s and relive a referendum in the 1970s is not the way to plan for the future. The way to plan for the future is to have an agenda for a global Europe, which is exactly what this government has."

Mr Cameron turned his fire on both the government and the Lib Dems, saying: "The truth is all of us in this House promised a referendum. We have the courage of our convictions and are sticking to that promise – you have lost your courage and that lot (the Lib Dems] have lost their convictions."

Mr Brown insisted the Tory proposals for a referendum would put the country's membership of the EU at risk. "Why won't you wake up to the fact that 3.5 million jobs are dependent on our membership of the EU?" he asked.

David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, insisted a referendum should be held only when a "fundamental" shift of power was to take place. And he said the Treaty of Lisbon did not represent a fundamental shift and any referendum was, in a sense, an abdication of power by parliament and the government of the day.

He went on: "This government intend to make no such abdication of their responsibilities; neither do we intend to invite the House to abdicate from its responsibility."

William Hague, the shadow foreign secretary, asked MPs: "What has really changed between Tony Blair standing at the dispatch box and saying let battle be joined in a referendum in April 2004, and the current Prime Minister saying let battle be avoided at any cost and please don't let me be photographed at the signing ceremony? Two things have changed – the general election of 2005 was got out of the way and the government have decided that a referendum cannot be held because they do not think they would win it."

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At the end of the Commons debate, the government's majority was further increased with a 311-247 vote against Scottish Labour rebel Ian Davidson's proposal for a two-question referendum.

While Europe dominated yesterday, its problematic roots go back decades. It has brought down two modern-day Tory prime ministers, seen a U-turn from the Labour Party on its position of the 1980s and it now threatens the position of the country's newest party leader.

It was the killer resignation speech of Geoffrey Howe as foreign secretary that did for Margaret Thatcher, while John Major railed against the Euro-sceptic "bastards" who prompted his decision to stand down as party leader, in an attempt to force his critics to unite behind him.

Today, Mr Cameron is not regarded as an enthusiast on Europe, and the Tory big hitters on the issue remain the likes of Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine. The Conservative leader also has to contend with an anti-Europe fervour among many of his young turks.

It was Tony Blair who promised in 2004 that Britain would have a referendum – though that was before the draft EU constitution was rejected by France and the Netherlands in 2005 and gave birth to the reform, or Lisbon, treaty. That was seen as a supposedly watered-down version that would be more acceptable to member states.

Mr Brown continues to maintain that there is no need for a referendum because the treaty is not of equal significance to a redrafted constitution. But many observers think this is because he fears the outcome of a UK vote on Europe would be a rejection of Europe.


• THE Lisbon Treaty establishes the post of president of the European Council.

The holder – Tony Blair, the former British prime minister, has been suggested by Nicolas Sarkozy, the president of France – will serve for two and a half years at a time for a maximum of two terms. This post will replace the system whereby the presidency rotates between member countries every six months. However, the job carries no executive powers.

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• Another new post will be a European Union high representative for foreign affairs and security, uniting two jobs and giving the holder greater diplomatic clout and control over the EU's foreign aid budget. The intention is to give the EU a bigger presence on the world stage. The high representative will put the case – if there is a united one – of EU members at the United Nations Security Council.

• The European Commission – the EU's "cabinet" – will shrink from 2014, with fewer commissioners than member states (currently 27). Only two-thirds of countries will have a commissioner at any one time.

• The number of votes held by each member state will be redistributed, while the national veto will be removed in a number of areas. Under the new rules, a vote will be passed if 55 per cent of states are in favour – 15 out of 27 – and if they represent 65 per cent of the EU's population. It is also passed if fewer than four countries oppose it.

• New powers in fields such as justice and home affairs will be handed to the commission, European Parliament and European Court of Justice. But the UK can opt in or out of any policies in these areas.

• The treaty contains provisions allowing member states to agree that decisions currently passed only by unanimous vote can in future be agreed by a majority – although not on defence – in 45 to 70 policy areas. However, some are very technical.

• All 27 member states must ratify the treaty. before it can come into effect. If so, it should begin to come into effect from 2009.


THE countries whose parliaments will be left to decide the fate of the European Reform Treaty are: Austria, Belgium, Bulgaria, Cyprus, Czech Republic, Denmark, Estonia, Finland, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Lithuania, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Poland, Portugal, Slovakia, Spain and Sweden.

The countries which have already agreed to ratify the treaty are: France, Hungary, Malta, Romania and Slovenia.

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Ireland is the only member state which has agreed to hold a referendum. It will be staged in May or June.

Speculation of yet another Lib Dem leadership battle grows as Clegg struggles to make mark

NICK Clegg has only been in the job three months, but already his actions have triggered speculation that yet another contest to lead the Liberal Democrats could soon be under way.

Mr Clegg, who only narrowly won the party leadership, has done what to most Lib Dems is an affront to their party's principles: imposed a three-line whip ordering all MPs to abstain from voting on the European referendum motions.

The new leader was furious that the Commons Speaker had not allowed a vote on the "official" Lib Dem amendment.

This would have called for a referendum on whether the UK should be in or out of Europe. But what was originally an idea from Sir Menzies Campbell, Mr Clegg's predecessor, held no sway with up to a quarter of the parliamentary party.

One senior MP told The Scotsman: "(Mr Clegg] has asked us to abstain on an issue where passions run incredibly high. Banning a vote – effectively stifling democracy – is a concept that is alien to the Lib Dems."

Despite being a pro-European party, many Lib Dems hold seats in eurosceptic areas of the country and represent rural constituents who feel they have been hammered by Brussels.

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The other factor that has made Lib Dems uncomfortable is that the party promised a vote on the constitutional treaty in its manifesto. But Mr Clegg, pictured below, effectively signed up to the government's line – that the treaty differs from the previously rejected constitution – to justify his refusal to hold a vote on it.

Even before the current bust-up, party insiders had been disappointed with Mr Clegg's performances.

The Sheffield Hallam MP has been playing it safe after the party was dogged by bad headlines in the final months of the leaderships of Charles Kennedy and Sir Menzies.

His worst fear, insiders say, is having the Lib Dems be the subject of the wrong sort of controversy or ridicule.

However, he has also been plagued by comparisons with David Cameron, although this is arguably more problematic for the Conservative leader.

The former MEP is telegenic and well spoken, and he has not yet stumbled at Prime Minister's Questions. But he has also failed to seize the initiative or headlines since becoming leader.

Mr Clegg has also been criticised for not having a clear narrative or message to send to the electorate.

He has been largely inoffensive, but the Lib Dems must broaden their appeal to get even the same level of votes as they did at the 2005 general election.

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Under Mr Kennedy, the party secured its most successful results – largely attributed to the Iraq war. The potency of the war will have dissipated by the time of the next election, probably next year, leaving the Lib Dems without their unique selling point.

Meanwhile, the Tories have managed to encroach on the Lib Dems' other main brand: the civil liberties agenda.

All parties have now signed up, at least rhetorically, to the "green" policies once espoused only by the Lib Dems.

While Mr Clegg may have felt that his actions were strong, decisive and principled, 13 of his own MPs disagreed so strongly that they defied him.

It is an inauspicious start for a leader who has had to follow the high standards set by caretaker leader Vince Cable.