Leading article: This sterile and needless argument

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The Independent Online

Victory for the Government in last night's vote on whether there ought to be a national referendum on the Lisbon treaty was the right result. The argument over whether the treaty is substantially different from the European Union constitution rejected by French and Dutch voters three years ago is never likely to be settled. But it should be quite clear to the objective observer that this treaty does not represent a shift in Britain's relationship with the European Union worthy of a referendum, no matter what the die-hard Eurosceptic lobby maintains.

And, even if that were the case, in Britain we have a parliamentary system. Our MPs are charged with voting on legislation and treaties. Those who complain loudly that refusing a referendum is a betrayal of democracy confuse democracy with the mere process of holding a public vote. The Liberal Democrat leadership's idea of rejecting a referendum on the Lisbon treaty but calling for a referendumon Britain's EU membership never had any merit either, other than as a device for holding the party together on this issue. What would be the justification for calling such a high-stakes poll now?

Of course, the manner in which the whole affair has been handled has been lamentable. An epic catalogue of folly, arrogance and cynicism brought us to this pass. It began with the vanity of various European ministers and the former French President, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who insisted on making necessary reform of the EU's decision-making processes post-enlargement into a grandiose and overblown "constitution" project.

This was followed by Tony Blair's cowardly decision to promise a UK referendum before the last general election to appease the Eurosceptic press. This, in turn, resulted in Labour MPs going into the last election committed to a referendum on the constitution. There can have been few more obvious hostages to fortune in recent political history.

Despite prevailing in the Commons yesterday, the Government has been damaged by the affair. Yet it is the Conservative Party that faces the greater pressure from now on. Will David Cameron promise to hold a referendum on the ratified treaty if his party wins the next election? If he does not, he will face outrage from his own die-hard Eurosceptic backbenchers. But if he does, he would be effectively setting Britain on the road to EU withdrawal.

As for the Liberal Democrats, they are right about one thing. The wells of public debate have been poisoned by the Government's refusal to stand up and make the case for the EU at home. If those politicians who favour Britain's active engagement in Europe want to put this debacle behind them, they will now turn their attention to making the case for the EU to the British public – loudly and unashamedly.