News story

"No more powers should be moved from Britain to the EU"

Foreign Secretary William Hague writes in the Sunday Telegraph in advance of the EU Bill reaching committee stage in Parliament on Tuesday.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

The disillusionment of British voters with politicians has many causes: expenses scandals, economic pressures and the failures of the last Labour Government.

But high on the list of such causes is the sheer undemocratic arrogance with which a European treaty of huge significance - the Lisbon Treaty - was rammed into law two years ago with no mandate of any kind from the people of this country.

Labour’s cynical behaviour over that Treaty, the denial of any say for voters and the absurd pretence that this was nothing ordinary people should be allowed to concern themselves with was a very grave blow to the European Union’s democratic credentials in this country and has caused deep and lasting anger.

I would have dearly loved to hold a referendum on that treaty after a change of government: sadly the ratification of Lisbon by all 27 EU states last autumn made that impossible. But I have always been determined that this flagrant denial of democratic choice to the people of Britain would never happen again.

The current system we have for these kinds of decisions is, quite simply, now morally bankrupt. It must change.

It is our firm belief and our policy that no more powers should be moved from Britain to the EU but that is not enough - if any Government ever again attempted to change the EU Treaties to transfer further powers the British people must rightfully have their say.

So we must change the law to ensure that by law the British people’s wishes can never be ignored in such a way again. This will mark a fundamental shift of power from Government to Parliament and to the voters of this country, a shift long overdue.

The EU Bill we are bringing forward will put into the British people’s hands a referendum lock on any further changes to the EU’s Treaties that hand over powers from Britain to the EU, a lock to which only they will hold the key.

In the great detail necessary to cover the complexity of those Treaties and the various kinds of treaty change the Bill sets out in clear terms when Ministers must put a treaty change to a referendum.

Not only will Parliament now be given a full say over all kinds of treaty change but any treaty change that hands over powers to the EU or extends its control over any area of policy will also be subject to a referendum.

Not only would the removal of the veto over any of 44 separate treaty articles require a referendum, or the substantive use of any of 12 treaty articles, the Bill also lays down strict and comprehensive tests which will capture transfers of power on any change to the Treaties - whether an attempt to increase the EU’s powers over an existing area of policy or any reach into a new area of policy.

If any one of these tests are met - it is worth noting that the Lisbon Treaty would have been caught in numerous separate ways - then the law will require a referendum, and if any minister decides to ignore them then, like any other ministerial decision, they will be subject to judicial review in the courts.

So any British citizen will be able to go to court to enforce the electorate’s rights and ensure that ministers cannot wriggle out of a referendum.

Some people have argued that the Bill does not go far enough or has loopholes. But the truth is that only in a few minor areas does it give the ministers of the day any discretion at all about the calling of a referendum - and then only if they can persuade parliament and the courts that they are right. When it becomes an Act this will be the strongest defence of national democracy put in place anywhere in Europe. It is a massive advance for national democracy.

And not only will current and future ministers in this country know that they cannot hand over powers without a referendum but other nations’ governments will too. It will always have to be in their minds if they are contemplating changing the EU Treaties that any consequent increase in the EU’s powers would trigger a binding referendum in the United Kingdom.

In its sovereignty clause the Bill also deals with one potential but important problem for the future. It has been argued before the courts and by academic commentators that our membership of the EU has altered our ancient doctrine of parliamentary sovereignty. That doctrine is a matter that should be beyond such speculation, so the Bill confirms and affirms the position that EU law in this country is only recognised by virtue of the authority of acts of Parliament.

Such a defence for our nation’s democracy is a necessary complement to our vigorous and active engagement within the EU, an engagement which is already delivering solid results in our national interest: tough, targeted EU sanctions on Iran, a free trade agreement with South Korea and the beginnings of some financial reality in the EU budget.

This Bill is not a panacea for all the many additional problems in the EU we have to solve, but it does mean that in the future the most important decisions of all will belong not to the executive alone, or even Parliament, but the British people themselves. New rights given to people are, quite properly, hard and politically painful to claw back, so this Bill ought to become part of our settled constitutional order.

The Labour Party that voted against a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty now have a decision to make: can they recognise that the first step to political recovery is the admission of past mistakes and lend their support to this radical step to strengthen our democracy, or will they try to deny the British people their new democratic power?

Updates to this page

Published 9 January 2011