Nicholas Clegg: Europe needs a rest from referendums

The prospect of a permanent fissure in the EU's ranks now beckons after Sunday's Swedish vote
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The Independent Online

In the shrill slanging match which passes for debate on the euro within the UK, it is no wonder Sunday's Swedish rejection of the euro has already been misrepresented. It is not a body blow to the single currency itself. The euro will continue undisturbed by Sweden's disdain. Nor will it have a determining effect on a possible British referendum. That will always depend on the anguished relations between numbers 10 and 11 Downing Street, rather than on any drama in Stockholm.

But even if the claims made for domestic political effect are hollow, the wider significance for Europe of the referendum vote is difficult to ignore. The nearest equivalent was Denmark's rejection of the Maastricht Treaty, just over 11 years ago. Then, too, the unceremonious rejection of the EU's latest "grand projet" by feisty Scandinavians set alarm bells ringing throughout Europe's capitals.

No nation had displayed the temerity before to cock a snook at plans so meticulously mapped out by Europe's leaders. Panic ensued. The "end of EU élitism" was proclaimed. A new age of humility and accountability was called for. The offending treaty was duly rewritten and successfully resubmitted to the Danish people in May 1993. The onward march of European integration resumed once again, narrowly averting disaster.

Sunday's Swedish vote, by contrast, will be harder to fix. The size of the "no" vote guarantees that there will be no re-run for many years to come. The prospect of a permanent fissure in the EU's ranks now beckons. Voters in the former Communist bloc, in particular, will note that membership now means different things to different nations. This suits their instincts. They recognise that EU membership is essential to their interests, but are wary of a succession of new EU ventures which deepen its identity at the cost of their own recently reborn national identities.

This brings us to the crucial issue which will be most influenced by the knock-on effect of the Swedish "no" vote: the EU's new constitution. To date, six countries have already pledged to hold a referendum on the constitution when a text is finally hammered out in the coming months. If the whole Swedish political and economic establishment was unable to sway the voters of a small country whose economy is entirely dependent on the eurozone, the risk of a rejection of a new-fangled constitutional text which raises even more fundamental issues of identity and sovereignty must be great.

Sunday's rejection of a currency by one country could herald the rejection of Europe's new political blueprint by many more.

What, then, can the pro-European camp do to avoid such a dismal drubbing in future ballots? First, call a spade a spade. Goran Persson's pro-euro campaign failed utterly to spell out loud and clear the overwhelming advantages to Sweden of its membership of the EU. Wittering about future mortgage rates is no replacement for a full-throated assertion of the merits of European unity.

The British government risks making precisely the same mistake in its presentation of the new constitution. It is patently absurd to pretend that it is merely a "tidying up" exercise, or that it is of insufficient political importance to require a referendum. Either it is a constitution - a hugely significant symbolic step in itself - or it is not. Trying to fudge the issue will only elicit further suspicion from voters long bamboozled by the ways of the EU. Candour and ambition are essential to any successful pro-European argument.

The anti-European camp has for too long thrived unchallenged in its dishonest belief that we can remain members of the EU while railing against all its latest ventures. By appearing mealy-mouthed about the euro and the constitution, Persson and Blair merely concede further ground to the rising tide of anti-Europeanism. At some point, we must all be forced to acknowledge the fork in the road: either we are part of the EU, willing and able to shape the steps in its evolution, or we had better retire to the sidelines for good.

Second, the advocates of European integration must relearn the lessons of Denmark's referendum. Voters need a rest. The relentless pace of European integration has been churning for too long. One treaty revision has succeeded another for a decade and a half. In a footloose economic environment, in which voters long for economic and social security, stability must now become the primary political aim.

The EU, always changing, always on the move, has become the oversized epitome of the restlessness which voters now fear. It is time that the EU's political élite recognise that the patience of Europe's voters cannot be tested to destruction.

The debate on the EU's new constitution, therefore, presents a precious opportunity: the opportunity to draw a line under European integration for several years to come. Ratification of the constitution should be coupled with a moratorium on any further political convulsions in the EU's design. We all deserve a break.

Candour and stability are the ingredients for a reinvigoration of the pro European case. Swedish voters at the weekend were presented with neither, and duly turned their backs. We have been warned.

The writer is a Liberal Democrat Member of the European Parliament