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I Want a Referendum

Rally speech - Wednesday, 27th February 2008

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It's great to be here with you today, and I congratulate the organisers for an excellent event. I was heartened to walk down the line of people queuing outside the Houses of Parliament to lobby their MPs -- it was so long that I had to give up and get back here before I got to the end. The crowd in this room now speaks for itself.

I'm a Member of the European parliament. OK, I know! It's a dirty job, but somebody has to do it! At least I try to represent my constituents in Brussels, not to sell Brussels to my constituents.

I'm not going to tell you how the Lisbon Treaty is the Renamed Constitution, or how it passes powers from Westminster to Brussels, or how it represents the final threshold as the EU morphs from an association of states into a United States of Europe. I won't talk about these issues, because many other speakers today have covered, and will cover, those points. Rather, I thought I'd tell you about our trench warfare in Brussels and Strasbourg.

Back in the December Strasbourg session, a group of MEPs from various parties and many countries staged a demonstration in the Hemicycle (the debating chamber where the plenary sessions take place). The occasion was the signing, by the Presidents of the parliament, the Commission and the Council, of the Charter of Fundamental Rights -- that's the one that according to Keith Vaz, then Europe Minister, would have "no more legal force than the Beano". This of course was not strictly parliamentary business -- it was inter-institutional business, and sceptic MEPs felt that the choice of venue was a provocation.

Our intention had been to conduct a dignified and orderly protest, wearing "Referendum" T-shirts, with placards and banners reading simply "Referendum!" However when the President of the parliament Hans-Gert Poettering over-reacted by asking the ushers to confiscate the banners, a cat-and-mouse game ensued, and the protesters -- well over fifty, maybe up to a hundred -- started chanting "Referendum, Referendum!". This interrupted the speech of President of the Council José Socrates, Prime Minister of Portugal. We were subsequently accused by Poettering of "Denying free speech" because of this interruption! The barracking died down, but was resumed during the actual signing ceremony, against the soundtrack of the "European Anthem", Beethoven's Ode to Joy. This caused particular offence to EU loyalists.

A bizarre postscript to this event was the Stalinist-style doctoring of the video record by the parliamentary authorities. They had used careful camera shots to avoid our banners as far as possible. Then they dropped the sound-track with the barracking, and substituted a virginal recording of the anthem. We should perhaps be careful of parallels between the European Union and the Soviet Union, but this one is undeniable.

Poettering was so infuriated by the demonstration -- they cannot tolerate dissent -- that he instituted disciplinary proceedings against fourteen MEPs, including myself. He also included an MEP who that day had been in Frankfurt -- so the guy must have been shouting pretty loudly! A notable omission from the charge sheet was my good friend Nigel Farage. As he had been actively engaged in the protest, he took great exception to his omission, and demanded on a point of order to know why he had been excluded.

I duly attended a very courteous disciplinary hearing with Poettering, taking along Conservative Chief Whip Den Dover with me to see fair play. I said my piece; Poettering said his; and I am still waiting to hear what my penalty will be. I am guessing I might be fined £1000 -- in which case we will all know what the price of "free speech" is in Strasbourg!

Having attracted criticism for riotous behaviour in December, we attempted a much more decorous protest, within the rules, in January, requesting recorded votes, tabling explanations of vote and so on. At the worst we might (as Dan Hannan has said) have delayed their lunch by half an hour. But -- as I have observed -- they cannot stomach dissent. So Poettering applied to the Constitutional Affairs Committee (on which I sit) for what he called "a reinterpretation of the rules". It was no such thing. What he requested, and was given, was arbitrary authority to set aside the rule-book at whim, in order to prevent sceptics making a point.

Dan Hannan, on a point of order, asked whether this dismissal of the rule-book and assumption of arbitrary Presidential powers was not comparable to the actions of the then-Chancellor of Germany who passed an Enabling Act with a similar effect in 1933. This reference, however oblique, to the Nazi era was considered so shocking that the current President of the EPP group, Joseph Daul, leapt to his feet to say that Hannan would be thrown out of the group. This gave me a curious sense of déjâ vu. It was almost to the letter what happened to me three years ago, and Dan has been duly expelled from the EPP, just as I was, following the formality of a vote in a group meeting. He now joins me in the Non Inscrit. As I have, he will find that he is much better off outside the EPP. Unlike me, he has not been suspended from the Party whip.

In February in Strasbourg we had the vote on the parliament's report on the Renamed Constitution, and it was of course passed with a substantial majority. Poettering leapt to his feet to congratulate members on their "historic vote", saying that it represented "The free will of European citizens". This is the Constitution that was rejected by referenda in France and Holland. It is the referendum on which British village polls and opinion polls have shown 80% plus demand for a referendum. This is a very strange kind of "free will". I am not sure which is most shocking -- Poettering's detachment from reality, or his deceit, or his towering contempt for voters and for democracy.

Post Script: We later found in the largest test yet of public opinion in the UK, the I Want a Referendum postal ballot of ten constituencies, on a very respectable turnout of 36%+, that more than 88% want a referendum, and more than 88% oppose the Treaty.