(AFP) – Jun 25, 2008
LONDON (AFP) — London's High Court on Wednesday rejected a legal bid to force Britain to hold a referendum on the European Union's Lisbon Treaty, clearing the way for British ratification despite Ireland's "no" vote.
Stuart Wheeler, who gave five million pounds to the main opposition Conservative Party in 2001, launched the action to overturn the governing Labour Party's refusal to hold a public vote.
The government had pledged to hold a referendum on the EU constitution, which was rejected by Dutch and French voters in 2005 and replaced by the Lisbon Treaty, but now maintains a vote is no longer needed as the treaty has no profound constitutional implications.
In their written judgment, judges Stephen Richards and Colin Mackay, said: "We are satisfied that the claim lacks substantive merit and should be dismissed."
Even if they had taken a different view, they would still have dismissed the case as parliament had already addressed the question about a referendum and decided against one, they added.
The legal action, which the government called "politics dressed up as law", threatened to delay Britain's ratification of the treaty, which is designed to streamline EU institutions after recent expansion eastwards.
The bloc's future was plunged into doubt after Irish voters rejected the treaty in a June 12 referendum.
In an unexpected turn of events, the judges last week asked the government to delay its almost-complete ratification of the treaty until he ruled on Wheeler's challenge.
Richards and Mackay said in their judgment Wednesday that decision was taken because of concerns that the government was trying to "pre-judge or pre-empt" the court while its ruling was pending.
"The Prime Minister (Gordon Brown), however, acted promptly to remove our concern by making clear that ratification would not take place before the judgment was handed down," they added.
"In the event, the decision of the court is itself clear. We have found nothing in the claimant's case to cast doubt on the lawfulness of ratifying the Lisbon Treaty without a referendum."
Wheeler's lawyers immediately applied for permission to appeal on the grounds of the "serious and legal constitutional issues" in the case, but were refused.
Outside court, Wheeler, a eurosceptic former lawyer and merchant banker who made his estimated 40-million-pound fortune as a spread betting pioneer, was defiant.
He said he would press on with an application to appeal and had "high hopes" of succeeding.
The treaty was virtually identical to the defunct constitution, he claimed, adding: "We were seeking to prevent the government, which had made a very clear promise, from breaking that promise."
The Lisbon Treaty Bill was given Royal Assent last week after being approved by both houses of parliament, despite protests led by the Conservatives, which called for a referendum.
But the ultimate step in the ratification process would come when Britain deposits its "instruments of ratification" in Rome -- home of the Rome Treaty of 1957 which set the cornerstone of what is today the European Union.
Britain's Europe Minister Jim Murphy welcomed the ruling, saying the court supported the government's position that the Lisbon Treaty "differs in both form and substance from the defunct Constitution."
"With parliament's approval the government is proceeding to ratify the Lisbon Treaty, which is in our national interest and is a good treaty for the UK," he said in a statement.
Eurosceptic groups also said they were disappointed and claimed the British government was alone in Europe by claiming the treaty was different to the constitution.
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