(AFP) – Jan 21, 2008
LONDON (AFP) — The British government won the first round of what is expected to be a bruising parliamentary battle over a controversial new European treaty Monday.
Lawmakers backed the second reading of the European Union (Amendment) Bill, which ratifies the Lisbon Treaty, by 362 votes to 224, a majority of 138, despite a small number of governing Labour Party MPs dissenting over the issue.
Opponents of the bill have demanded a referendum over the treaty, which they say is the defunct European constitution in all but name. But the government has insisted that it be ratified through parliament, as key parts of British sovereignty have been preserved.
During a sometimes rowdy debate in the House of Commons earlier, Foreign Secretary David Miliband presented the case for the treaty at the start of a what is likely to be a six-week battle to approve the pact.
"Why won't you give us a referendum when your party promised us one and when all the powers we were worried about transferring in the constitution are being given away needlessly and recklessly?" said opposition Conservative lawmaker John Redwood.
"For the same reason you voted against a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 1992, which is that this is a parliamentary democracy and this is an amending treaty," replied Miliband.
Britain's notoriously difficult relationship with the rest of the 27-nation bloc will come under the spotlight during the standoff over the Lisbon document, which replaces a series of EU pacts including the Maastricht Treaty.
Prime Minister Gordon Brown's government still faces the possibility of a larger revolt by Labour MPs, however.
In the coming weeks, several of them are reportedly planning to join the Conservatives in calling for a referendum on the issue.
Upcoming votes on the treaty could, therefore, test Labour's working majority of 67 in the 646-member House of Commons.
Critics want Brown to make good on a pledge by his predecessor Tony Blair to hold a referendum on the constitution -- a pledge made shortly before it was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005.
But Brown argues that the Lisbon Treaty, signed by EU leaders last month, is fundamentally different from the constitution.
Pro-referendum campaigners say he is simply worried that notoriously eurosceptic Britons will reject it.
The government's case was not helped by a lawmakers' report at the weekend, which said the new treaty was substantially the same as the doomed EU constitution.
"We conclude that there is no material difference between the provisions on foreign affairs in the constitutional treaty which the government made subject to approval in a referendum and those in the Lisbon Treaty on which a referendum is being denied," said the Foreign Affairs Committee report Sunday.
Miliband insisted the Lisbon Treaty sis not require a referendum, since Britain had secured concessions in four "red line" policy areas during negotiations over the new pact.
"Obviously ... parliament will have to decide. But I don't believe that this treaty meets the bar of fundamental constitutional reform that should be the basis of having a referendum," he told the BBC on Sunday.
Brown is widely seen as more eurosceptic than Blair, whom he succeeded in June, but that has not stopped the opposition Conservatives from accusing him of surrendering Britain's sovereignty to Europe.
The British leader raised eyebrows by arriving late for a grand ceremony to sign the new EU treaty in Lisbon last month with what many regarded as a flimsy excuse -- he had had to appear before a committee of MPs.
On Monday Brown was again absent, this time on his way back from a trip to China and India, prompting suggestions that he views their mounting economic power as far more important than finalising Europe's institutional future.
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