Saturday, March 19, 2011

A question of definitions

As the EU Bill is about to be debated in the House of Lords, it is worth remembering that a great deal of its main part - the referendum lock - depends on definitions. In that connection it is worth noting this exchange in the House of Commons on Wednesday when the adoption of draft European Council Decision EUCO 33/10 was debated.

In case you are wondering what that is about:
At the meeting of the European Council of 28 and 29 October 2010, the Heads of State or Government agreed on the need for Member States to establish a permanent crisis mechanism to safeguard the financial stability of the euro area as a whole and invited the President of the European Council to undertake consultations with the members of the European Council on a limited treaty change required to that effect.
It has to go through the member states' legislatures and it was, therefore, debated in the House of Commons though the vote has been postponed.

At the start of the debate Philip Hollobone, MP for Kettering asked:
Will my right hon. Friend confirm that this is the first time that the passerelle mechanism-in other words, a fast-track treaty amendment without an intergovernmental conference-is being used? Is this the first time that such a passerelle clause has been brought before the House?
This is an important point even though it sounds like a ridiculous little detail for a number of reasons. One of them is that the EU Bill ensures that there will be referendums when changes are made under a passerelle or "fast-track" clause. So, it is of some importance to know whether this interesting little legal trick is being invoked. But do we know the answer to that?

David Lidington, the Minister for Europe, seems to wave the problem away in a somewhat airy fashion:
We can debate whether or not it is a passerelle. It is certainly the first time that the provisions under the Lisbon treaty for a simplified revision procedure, rather than the full-scale procedure to which my hon. Friend alluded, has been employed.
Bernard Jenkin, MP for Harwich and North Essex, tried to clarify the issue that ought to have been under discussion:
Can we be absolutely clear what we are doing here? It used to take months, even years, to change a European treaty. Tonight, we are going to debate this motion for 90 minutes and then the Government will go to the European Council and agree to that change in the treaty. That is correct, is it not, because the next time this comes back for scrutiny it will be a fait accompli?
Mr Lidington continued to wave the problem away:
No, I do not share my hon. Friend's analysis of the procedures that lie ahead of us, and I think he underestimates the further opportunities there will be for the House to consider this proposed treaty amendment. I will come on to that in a little more detail later.
Well now, is this an important change in the Treaties or not? Once the EU Bill has been passed would some change of this sort require a referendum or not? Mr Lidington is not going to tell us but we do need to know.

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