David Lidington, Europe minister, has urged pro-European peers to end their resistance to a new British EU “referendum lock”, insisting the measure would give people more power over a remote elite.
Mr Lidington argued that unless voters were given more control over European integration- including the right of veto in a referendum - the result would be growing anti-EU extremism.
Opposition to the “referendum lock” - a key part of the Conservative manifesto - has been led in the House of Lords by veteran pro-European peers, some of whom have devoted their political life to British engagement in Europe.
They include former British diplomats and former Tory ministers including Lord Howe, the former foreign secretary, and John Gummer, former agriculture minister. “It’s a generational thing,” Mr Lidington told the Financial Times.
Peers will vote today (WED) on whether to yield in a battle of wills between the upper house and an increasingly Eurosceptic House of Commons.
The Lords had previously voted to substantially weaken the referendum lock to prevent Britain becoming a permanent roadblock to EU integration.
Peers supported a “sunset clause” amendment that would have put an end to the “lock” after five years, leaving it to a future government to decide whether to retain it.
The Lords also demanded that any referendum would be invalid unless there was a 40 per cent turnout and tried to limit the scope of the lock. All of those amendments were rejected by MPs on Monday.
Mr Lidington, a moderate on EU issues, urged the Lords to accept the will of the Commons today. “Don’t underestimate the extent of disaffection towards the EU and how decisions by - and about - the EU are taken.”
He said the offer of a referendum would reassure British citizens and head off the possibility of extremist parties exploiting anti-European sentiment.
The crisis in the eurozone has reinforced the level of scepticism in the Commons, while the red benches of the Lords include many who cut their teeth fighting for the European cause in the 1970s and before.
Mr Lidington hopes finally to pass the EU bill into law before the summer break, but further Lords resistance today (WED) could lead to a protracted game of legislative “ping pong” between the two houses.
The level of unhappiness in the Commons towards Europe was illustrated late on Monday night when 246 MPs voted against raising Britain’s contributions to the International Monetary Fund, which is heavily involved in bailing out the eurozone.
Ed Balls, shadow chancellor, led the opposition to the increased IMF subscriptions. He believes that George Osborne, chancellor, should have argued more vigorously for eurozone countries to take a bigger share of rescuing Greece, Ireland and Portugal.
A number of Conservative MPs also voted with Mr Balls, but the increase in the IMF subscription was carried by 274 votes to 246.
Mr Osborne’s aides accused Mr Balls of “opportunism” and Downing St said that refusing to pay the IMF subscription would have amounted to a decision to leave the organisation.
The move to increase the IMF’s firepower was one of the key decisions taken at the G20 summit in London, presided over by Gordon Brown, former Labour prime minister.
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