Brian O'ConnellBrian O'Connell, London Editor, looks at calls in the UK for a Lisbon Treaty referendum and its negotiated opt-outs.

Why no UK referendum?

In March 2008, MPs at Westminster voted to reject calls for a UK referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. The Conservatives, and some Labour backbenchers, had argued that the Lisbon Treaty was so similar to the failed EU Constitution, which had been rejected by voters in France and the Netherlands in 2005, that the new proposals should be put to a referendum in the UK.

In their 2005 general election manifestoes all three main political parties had promised to put the EU Constitution to a referendum.

Gordon Brown later argued that, because the Lisbon Treaty was 'substantially different' from the EU Constitution, no referendum was required. The Conservative opposition in the House of Commons continues to insist that the Lisbon Treaty represents a major shift in power away from Westminster to the European Union and that Gordon Brown has no democratic mandate to continue without a referendum.

Red lines

Tony BlairAt the EU summit in June 2007, in his last major engagement as British prime minister, Tony Blair negotiated a number of opt-outs. He said these so called 'red lines' would protect UK interests and sovereignty. These areas include a charter of human and social rights, foreign and defence policy, the judicial and police system and taxation and benefit arrangements.

The Charter of Fundamental Rights

The Charter of Fundamental Rights was approved by the EU at the Nice summit in 2000 and will be given the force of law by the Lisbon Treaty. The Charter sets out a range of civil, political and social rights enjoyed by EU citizens. The Treaty contains a reference to the Charter and makes it legally binding. However, the UK has secured a legally binding guarantee (known as a protocol) that the Charter cannot be used by the European Court of Justice in Luxembourg to alter British labour law, (on industrial disputes for example), or other British laws that deal with social rights.

European Court of JusticeIt is not yet clear how effective this opt-out will be. In a report published at the end of 2007, MPs on the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee noted that this UK opt-out would not prevent UK courts being bound by the European Court of Justice's interpretations based on the Charter.

Justice and Home Affairs

The Lisbon Treaty makes major changes to the EU's voting procedures. In some policy areas member states will no longer be able to veto proposals which they disagree with. A national veto disappears when member states agree that decisions that have hitherto been taken by a unanimous vote can in future be taken by a majority vote.

One of the most important abolitions of the veto is in the area of justice and home affairs. The UK currently has an opt-out from European policies concerning asylum, visas and immigration.

Under the new treaty, the UK (and Ireland) has negotiated the right to pick and choose whether to take part in EU justice and home affairs legislation and will have the right to opt-in or out of any justice or home affairs policies.

Foreign and Defence Policy

At the EU summit last June, Mr Blair said he would 'not agree to something that replaces the role of British foreign policy and our foreign minister'.

The Lisbon Treaty creates a single figurehead for EU foreign policy. Currently, the EU's foreign relations are dealt with by a Foreign Policy and Security Chief and by an External Relations Commissioner who controls the EU's foreign aid budget.

The holder of the new single post of High Representative of the Union for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy will be a powerful figure. A declaration to be added to the Lisbon Treaty says the creation of the post of High Representative will not 'affect the responsibilities of the member states for the formulation and conduct of their foreign policy.' However, such declarations are statements of political intent and are not legally binding.

Tax and Benefits

The Lisbon Treaty also moves certain areas dealing with taxation and benefits from a unanimous voting system to qualified majority voting.

Gordon Brown says he has negotiated a 'red line' over taxation. He insists that the UK has a guarantee that the EU cannot pass legislation that would lead to increases in UK social security costs or change UK taxation policy. However, his opponents claim that there were never serious proposals to give the EU new powers in these areas.