European Union Referendum Bill — Second Reading

Part of the debate – in the House of Lords at 11:54 am on 13th October 2015.

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Photo of Baroness Smith of Newnham Baroness Smith of Newnham Liberal Democrat 11:54 am, 13th October 2015

My Lords, the noble Lord is correct: the Liberal Democrats had a commitment to an in/out referendum and I will come to that in a moment. Temporarily, if he will allow me, I am speaking personally and I do not think that referendums are necessarily helpful. However, it was party policy for the Liberal Democrats to hold an in/out referendum at the time of treaty change in line with the 2011 EU Act passed during the coalition Government. That was not to hold a referendum on the basis of reform renegotiation along the lines of the Conservative manifesto of 2015. We recognise as a party that the Conservatives won the general election and that we are to move towards a referendum. That is absolutely clear. We will not get into the detail today of whether we will have a referendum: it will clearly happen.

Rather, I will flag up some areas that my colleagues will want to elaborate on during the debate. These are issues of the franchise, the question and reports, of the nature that the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, touched on. In particular, we will want to talk about the franchise. Here, the Minister said she had heard people calling for votes for 16 and 17 year-olds. I suspect that noble Lords will hear a lot more calls for votes for 16 and 17 year-olds in the course of today’s debate and through the passage of the Bill. It is the future of this country that matters. The Minister already said that this Bill is about the future of the United Kingdom, but if it is about the future of anybody it is that of our young people. The referendum last year in Scotland demonstrated that 16 and 17 year-olds can be trusted to vote and engage in political decisions, and these are questions about their future as much as that of Members of your Lordships’ House—many of whom already had a vote on whether Britain should remain part of the then European Community in 1975. Our 16 and 17 year-olds did not and it is their future as much as ours that is at stake.

In addition to 16 and 17 year-olds, many residents of the United Kingdom are disfranchised. These are EU nationals, who exercise their rights under the EU treaty to live and work in the United Kingdom and who thought they would be here as EU citizens. Surely they have at least as much interest in this referendum as Commonwealth citizens who happen to be resident in the United Kingdom. Therefore, I would like the Government to reflect on the extent of the franchise and votes for EU nationals, who contribute so much to the United Kingdom.

The Minister pointed out that another pledge in the Conservative manifesto of 2015 was to extend the franchise to Brits who have lived abroad for more than 15 years. In many cases that includes British nationals who are resident in Brussels and work in the EU institutions precisely because the United Kingdom is part of the European Union. I believe it also includes some Members of your Lordships’ House who are resident in France or in other countries. They will be enfranchised through the provision that Peers who are resident in France will be able to vote, but other British nationals who have been abroad for more than 15 years would not currently have the franchise. Yet surely they are exercising their rights under the EU treaty. Do they not have a right to have a say? It is not simply British nationals resident in the United Kingdom who have a profound stake in this referendum; it is also British nationals resident in other EU countries, who are benefiting from the current legislation to which we, the United Kingdom, signed up. Therefore, I ask the Minister to look again at the franchise and also to help us, as Members of your Lordships’ House, and the citizens of the United Kingdom and our partners and allies in the European Union, to understand what the British Government want and what the question really means.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, pointed out, the question has been reframed by the Electoral Commission. The Liberal Democrats, like the Labour Party, are happy to accept the revised question. It may indeed create maximum neutrality, as the Minister suggested, but it does not necessarily reflect maximum clarity. The previous wording,

“Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union?”,

with a yes or no option, at least appeared clear. We know what such membership entails, and to campaign or to vote on whether we stay or do not stay would appear to be clear. If we add into that the question of leaving, then we surely need some explanation of what leaving means. At one level it might appear to be entirely straightforward. We walk away from the European Union and from everything we signed up to in 1973. We walk away from the whole acquis communautaire that has been delivered ever since—legislation that the United Kingdom has indeed signed up to, which has been approved by both Houses of Parliament. That would be the relatively easy way of doing things—simply to tear everything up and start again. Superficially it is—to walk away, to be in splendid isolation, an autarchic country. That may be the UKIP position, but I suspect that it is not the position of Her Majesty’s Government, nor indeed of many Eurosceptics who wish to leave the European Union and who believe that there are alternatives—which could be the European Economic Area or the Swiss model, or perhaps something sui generis.

The question then becomes: are any of these other models more beneficial? We heard from the noble Baroness, Lady Morgan, that the European Economic Area may not be the deus ex machina that many people think. It is sometimes suggested that we could be like Norway. Indeed, we could try to be like Norway. It has the advantage of sovereign wealth funds. It has the advantage of being a small country that is integrated into the European markets. It has also signed up to much of EU’s acquis communautaire. But it does not have a seat at the table. It has what many people have referred to as “fax democracy”. I am told that that term is outdated. It is no longer fax democracy. Maybe it is e-democracy. The point is that the Norwegians are not able to sit at the table, as Her Majesty’s Government Ministers are able to sit at the table, and to legislate. They simply take what is given through the acquis.

It is true that the European Economic Area agreement has not been changed since 1994; it is in that sense static. But it is dynamic in the sense that, since 1994, 7,000 EU legal Acts have been incorporated into the agreement annexes. So the idea that somehow shifting to be part of the European Economic Area along with Iceland, Norway and Liechtenstein would be in any way preferable raises a whole set of questions. The United Kingdom would simply become a policy taker without a seat at the table. Nor is the Swiss model any better because, essentially, the Swiss are required to do what they are told. The Swiss bilateral agreements at the moment include 100 sectoral agreements that already provide for considerable integration, and the European Parliament as recently as July this year reminds us that the free movement of persons is one of the fundamental freedoms and a pillar of the single market. It has always been an inseparable part of the preconditions for the bilateral approach between the EU and Switzerland. So the Swiss model is not necessarily going to be any better than the EEA model or, indeed, membership of the European Union.

It is important that we understand what “leave” means, and I ask the Minister what provision the Government are making for reports that explain what it might mean and what the alternative models might mean. Could she also explain to us her understanding of Article 50? If the citizens of the United Kingdom, whether or not on an expanded franchise, are voting to leave the European Union, Article 50 suggests that the other 27 member states will decide what agreement they will make with the United Kingdom. We will not have a seat at the table. So the idea that we can set out scenarios of what we want may in any case be fanciful. I ask the Minister to explain further what the Government understand by “leave” and to bring forward a report to explain what the alternatives would be and how they would be explained to the British public.