Campbell: Referendum must be on Europe as a whole

Campbell has called for an honest debate on Europe, including a full public vote on the UK’s place in the European Union.

The Lib Dem leader previously refused to back calls for a referendum on the EU treaty, arguing it was not necessary as the document appeared to differ sufficiently from the failed EU constitution.

But with the Conservatives continuing to press Gordon Brown for a vote, Sir Menzies said it was time to “end the shadow boxing and enter into an honest debate about the EU”.

The Liberal Democrats will then make the “overwhelming case” for Europe, Sir Menzies confirmed, and trust the public to make the “right choice”.

Speaking on Friday he said: “I am not prepared to allow David Cameron to lead the Europhobes and their allies in sections of the media, to distort the debate on Europe without challenge.

“Fifteen years ago the Liberal Democrats demanded a referendum on the Maastricht treaty which established the EU, but the Conservative government refused it.

“Today David Cameron tries to pose as a champion of the people but in truth he wishes to restrict the British people to a choice on a narrow question about a treaty of far less significance.”

Avoiding accusations of a U-turn, Sir Menzies maintained a referendum was not necessary on the EU treaty alone.

“My own view is that in its present form the substantial differences between the draft treaty and the old constitution mean that a referendum is not required,” he clarified.

Instead Sir Menzies called for a referendum on the merits of the EU as a whole.

He continued: “Let’s have an honest debate on the EU followed by a real choice for the British people. That means a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU. We would ask the British people the big question – whether to remain in the EU or not.”

The last time UK voters were given a say on Europe was in 1975, when they backed membership of the European Economic Community.

Nigel Farage, UKIP leader, welcomed the call for an honest debate. However, he said it was doubtful Mr Brown would hold one if he did not believe he could win it.

The Conservatives were more critical of Sir Menzies’ stance.

Shadow foreign secretary William Hague said: “The proposal is a clear sign of desperation from Ming Campbell, whose party is so split on the issue”.

A debate on the UK’s role in Europe risks exposing divisions within the Conservative party, which has publicly split itself on the issue in the past.