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British MPs have voted unanimously for a bill that would require the British government to hold a referendum on the United Kingdom’s membership in the European Union by 2017.
Introducing the second reading debate, Tory backbencher James Wharton characterized his bill as one “that has at its heart the heart of our democracy.”
“Power should reside with the people,” he continued. “In introducing the bill, I speak for many in the House, but I speak for millions more outside the House.”
“This is about giving the public a real say—a real choice between the best possible deal that we can get from the European Union and, if the public so choose, leaving it, if that is what they want to do.”
Wharton pointed out that the European Community that the British people voted to join in 1975 is much different from today’s European Union.
“Those who voted yes in 1975 believed that they had bought a ticket to a clear and certain destination—to a free trade area that would benefit Britain’s economy without undermining our sovereignty,” he said.
“They did not buy a ticket for a never-ending journey to ever-closer union, destination unknown.”
The bill has its origins in a piece of draft legislation the Conservative Party published back in May, but they were unable to introduce it as official government legislation due to their coalition agreement with the Liberal Democrats. Unlike the Tories, who have to contend with a vocal contingent of Euroskeptics in their midst, the Lib Dems are a broadly Europhile party.
However, when Wharton came first in the ballot for Private Members’ Bills, he announced that he would use his slot to bring the bill forward. Although the Tories have imposed a three-line whip on their MPs to get them to support it, Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs have been ordered to abstain.
Speaking on behalf of Labour, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Douglas Alexander, said that “[a]ny judgment about an in-out referendum on the UK’s membership of the European Union has to be based on what is in the national interest.”
“On so many issues that matter—jobs, growth, trade and security in central Europe and the middle east—the EU remains an indispensable force multiplier for all its members. That includes the United Kingdom,” he continued.
“Our membership gives us access to the single market, a stronger voice on international trade and amplified influence on international diplomacy. That is why, when today’s spectacle of a Tory party talking to itself is long forgotten, we will continue to make the case for Britain’s place in Europe and for change in Europe.”
Alexander also reminded the House that the law already requires a referendum on any future transfer of sovereignty to Brussels.
Although the bill could have been approved on a voice vote, two Tory MPs forced a division in order to highlight the Labour and Lib Dem abstentions. The final tally was 304 to 0.
Unless Labour decides to actively oppose the bill at some point, it is likely that it will pass through all of its remaining stages in the Commons, though its opponents may try to wreck it in the House of Lords.
Even if the European Union (Referendum) Bill makes it onto the statute book, it is far from certain that the referendum will actually be held. If the Tories lose power in 2015, their successors could always repeal the bill. Also, the exact timing of the referendum will have to be ratified by both Houses of Parliament, giving Europhiles another opportunity to block it.