Well, the road charging petition finally closed at 1,791,363 signatures, ever so slightly more than the petition calling for a referendum on continued membership of the European Union. This closed on 15 February 2007, with the grand total of 4,805 signatures.
The gap is quite remarkable but, as we suggested earlier it is most likely to arise from the differences in perception as to the likelihood of success. Undoubtedly, what drove the road-charging petition is the mistaken belief that the issue has yet to be settled and the government can somehow be influenced.
That the government is beyond influence on the referendum issue is well demonstrated by its message in response to the petition which, coincidentally, arrived last night. In this, we are told:
Under UK's constitutional arrangements, while the Government may make a recommendation, it is ultimately for Parliament to decide whether to hold a referendum on a particular issue. Referendums in the UK are rare. Parliament - the elected representatives of the British people -has the right to take important decisions on their behalf. This was the case when the UK joined the (then) European Economic Community (EEC) in 1973.And that is all we get, which makes rather apposite the comments by the Italian foreign affairs think-tank, Istituto Affari Internazionali (IAI), which is carrying out a project with the aim of giving "a full comparative picture of debates on European integration and current developments in European politics" in each of the 27 member states in the EU. Of the United Kingdom, it says:
There was, of course, a referendum on UK membership of the EEC in 1975 because the Labour Government was committed to seeking the approval of the British people for the renegotiated terms of membership which it had obtained. Thereafter, each Treaty change - notably the Single European Act and the Treaties of Maastricht, Amsterdam and Nice - has been ratified following the passing of an Act of Parliament. Subject to Parliament's agreement, the Government has committed itself to a referendum on the Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe before its ratification by the UK. Following the 'no' votes in referendums in France and the Netherlands, however, the future of the Constitutional Treaty is now unclear.
The UK government thinks that the debate on a Constitutional treaty referendum is one that Britain does not need to have. In fact, holding a political debate on the revival of the Constitutional treaty is harmful rather than helpful to the UK debate on Europe…then adding,
The UK government has hinted that it does not think it is practical to revive the stalled ratification process. It has indefinitely postponed a referendum in Britain and will only look again at that question if the problems that were the heart of last year's French and Dutch rejection of the Constitutional treaty are sorted out and clarified.The institute also remarks that:
It is striking how little attention the UK government seems to give to the commemorations of the 50 years of the Treaties of Rome. Partly, this is essentially due to the fact that Britain was not a signatory of the Treaty of Rome in 1957. But it is also a reflection of how the UK government is keen on avoiding debate on Europe.As the anti road-charging lobby will find, though, it is not only on "Europe" that the government wishes to avoid a debate. "We the undersigned…" have been well and truly had.
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