Saturday, 22 October 2011

What is happening in the House of Commons?

There has been a great deal of misleading information about the debate that is due to take place on Monday, October 24 [scroll down past the Questions to Main Business]. It will not be an EU debate and it will not be a debate to have a referendum. It will be a Backbench Motion, put down by Conservative MP David Nuttall and signed by a number of other MPs of various parties:

That this House calls upon the Government to introduce a Bill in the next session of Parliament to provide for the holding of a national referendum on whether the United Kingdom should

(a) remain a member of the European Union on the current terms;

(b) leave the European Union; or

(c) re-negotiate the terms of its membership in order to create a new relationship based on trade and co-operation.

The Motion, if passed, will signify to the Government that the House wants legislation in the next session of Parliament, which will not be opened till the spring as the Coalition Government decided not to have the traditional autumn State Opening, for the country to have a referendum. It is the only way there can be a referendum in the UK - through Parliamentary legislation.

From the above we can see that what is being proposed is not an IN/OUT referendum but a three-option one with the possibility (and, given what the campaign is likely to be, the probability) of people voting for the rather pointless but sensible sounding third option.

It is pointless because the terms of the UK's membership cannot be renegotiated without a major change in the treaties and that cannot happen except at an Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC) with the unanimous agreement of all the Member States both through their representatives at it and back home when the new treaty has to be ratified. If Britain wants to renegotiate the terms of her membership while staying in the EU the other Member States will want various conditions in return for agreeing to the new terms.

There will be an extra complication. A number of amendments have been put down [listed below the main Motion] which aim to water down an already weak proposal. The debate is likely to take the whole afternoon and evening with, presumably, a division at around 10.

At present, all three main parties are supposed to issue a three-line whip to their MPs for them to vote against the Motion (though, possibly, in favour of some of the amendments). It is not clear how many MPs will defy that whip.

The Motion, even if it passes, is not binding and the Coalition Government can ignore it. That would probably be unwise: governments are not supposed to ignore the clearly expressed view of the House. But, as pointed out above, even if the House expresses that view, there will be no relevant legislation until well into next year with a possible referendum in a year's time.

How does this affect fishing and the disastrous Common Fisheries Policy? The hope is that even if details of all that is wrong with our membership of the EU are not aired in Monday's debate, they will be when and if the process of passing an EU Referendum Bill will take place. There will then be plenty of opportunity to point out that the CFP has been an absolute disaster and we need to come out of that. It will, undoubtedly be argued that we should negotiate the terms of our membership in order to reclaim control of our fishing waters. This blog has discussed the matter here and here.

It is even possible that the subject will be raised on Monday.


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