Richard North, 11/01/2014  

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There was plenty of excitement, of a sort, yesterday as the Lords met to debate the second reading of the Referendum Bill. By tradition, their Lordships do not divide on a second reading, so the thing was going to go through anyway, which indeed it did.

And now we have the Hansard report and various legacy media reports, such as from the Guardian. But these all point to one thing: very few of the noble Lords seem to have the first idea of what they are talking about.

We are all used to the idea of Kenneth Clarke not having read the Maastricht Treaty, but none of the Bill's advocates, not a single one of them, seem to have read the Lisbon Treaty. Had they done so, none of them could have delivered the low-grade tosh that we now see recorded.

The Guardian starts with Lord Armstrong, Margaret Thatcher's former cabinet secretary (and Heath's private secretary), who calls on the prime minister to follow the example of Margaret Thatcher. She, we are told, was "a patient negotiator". Armstrong then criticises No 10's plans to embark on a two-year renegotiation of Britain's EU membership terms if Cameron wins the 2015 general election.

We have to stop there for a moment – although regular readers will know what's coming. Even if it was on the cards, there is no way a renegotiation of Britain's EU membership terms could be concluded within two years.

However, we are told that "Tory sources" say that 2015-17 provided "the best window for renegotiations" because the new German coalition agreement committed the CDU-SPD government to amending the Lisbon treaty to underpin new governance arrangements for the euro. Thus, the prime minister aims to use a treaty renegotiation, which would have to be approved by all member states, to table his demands.

And there we go again. Assuming there are to be treaty renegotiations – and that's a big assumption - there will have to be a convention. This is an essential part of the ordinary revision procedure set out in Article 48 of the Treaty of the European Union. This is not optional – it is a treaty requirement.

And this, of course, readers of this blog know. So how come the Lord Armstrong and "Tory sources" don't know this? They can't know it, of course, because if they did, they would know that the convention would take two years and then an IGC another year. 

But then we get Lord Kerr of Kinlochard, a former UK ambassador to the EU. He says that No 10 was "plum wrong" to hold the referendum in 2017 – the year of the next French presidential and German federal elections. And at last we get someone who acknowledges the need for a convention, telling us that, if there are changes to the treaty, we have to go through four stages.

First, we have to secure a simple majority. That means that we need to find 14 member state governments who agree with us. We have not started that task and it looks as though we are not going to start it until after the election. Secondly, we have to get a consensus in the necessary convention. The last convention took 18 months. The third stage is that we have to get unanimity in the intergovernmental conference - Maastricht took a year - and the final stage is ratification.

Actually, the last (and only) convention process started with the Laeken declaration in December 2001 and effectively ended the start of the IGC in October 2003 – just two months short of the two years. The IGC then finished in June 2004 – the door-to-door treaty process taking two-and a half years.

Transpose that onto the current situation and assume that David Cameron gets re-elected in May 2015, that brings us to November 2017 on the same timescale. But then there has to be a referendum campaign, bringing us well into 2018.

It is Kerr who gives the game away. The other parties to this upcoming treaty, the "foreigners", he says, find it very odd that the Bill appears to, "to lay down a deadline which they know - because they are going to be in the IGC and the convention - is impossible".

Lord Liddle then complains that, "The prime minister … has chosen, as this bill sets out, the end of 2017 as the end date for a UK referendum without the slightest idea of what by then he will have tried to negotiate".

He goes on to question, "whether there is any prospect of our partners playing ball with such a renegotiation, whether a new treaty is necessary as part of that and what he would judge to be an acceptable outcome", then adding, "The truth is that he is playing Russian roulette with the British economic recovery".

The truth is though that some peers are playing idiots' roulette. We have Lord Dobbs, definitely a "brainless eurosceptic", telling us that David Cameron's approach is different. He wants real change in Europe, a new deal in the EU and then an "in-out" referendum by 2017.

And says this Dobbs person, "He has been the first prime minister to veto an EU treaty. He has secured a cut to the budget, stopped Britain being part of the bail-out fund, and much more. He wants to carry on doing all this, and then give you a vote".

This is time-wasting, big time. The sponsors of this Bill are wasting their time and ours. As Kerr says, this Bill sets a deadline that is "impossible". This farce should be brought to a speedy end.


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