Leading article: Unstatesmanlike behaviour

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Nick Clegg will have some explaining to do today when he briefs the Parliamentary lobby on Liberal Democrat policy towards a referendum on Europe and, more specifically, on last week's Commons walkout.

To recall, Mr Clegg staged the latter in protest against the Speaker's refusal to schedule a vote on a referendum, not on the Lisbon Treaty, as the Tories are demanding, but on Britain's membership of the European Union.

Mr Clegg will doubtless defend himself against the charge that his walkout came close to resembling a stunt of the type once associated with the rump of irreconcilables on the hard left of the Labour Party.

He may well say that the Liberal Democrats, as a staunchly pro-European party, are right to call for the nation to vote on the EU itself in order to end uncertainty once and for all over Britain's commitment to Europe. At the same time, the Liberal Democrats will make it clear they intend to flush out the anti-Europeans in the Tory party who they believe are cynically concealing their contempt for the whole European project under the guise of opposing the Lisbon Treaty.

Fair enough. The problem is that there is an element of recklessness at the heart of the strategy. It may be true that the Tories are papering over rifts in their own ranks on Europe by uniting behind the demand for a referendum on Lisbon. But there are serious questions to be asked over whether it would be wise to plunge the country into a national debate on the issue of EU membership as the Liberal Democrats demand.

Far from ending the European debate, as Mr Clegg and his supporters contend, the likelihood is that a referendum on the EU would do incalculable damage to Britain's standing in Europe, again reviving Britain's reputation as a semi-detached, unreliable player.

As for the effect of such a referendum at home, it would surely turn into a Pandora's Box, offering a megaphone to a host of undesirable right-wing extremists who would have a field day airing their racist and anti-immigrant views as part of a so-called debate on the EU. The Liberal Democrats have a dilemma on Europe. Unwilling to side with the Tories in calling for a referendum on Lisbon, and equally unwilling to side with Labour in flatly opposing that demand, they strive to find a third way and think they have found it in a referendum of their own devising. They should beware of getting what they wish for.

They should also reconsider such tactics as walkout. They do indeed whip up a little much-needed publicity but hardly appear statesmanlike or appropriate for a party that claims it is ready to form the next government.

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