Am I alone in finding the phoney war over the EU treaty unbelievably annoying? I feel as though I’m caught in the midst of an Olympic synchronised lying event, where just about everyone is saying the opposite of what they think for reasons different to those they give. The government doesn’t want a referendum because it will probably lose, so it is saying the treaty is very different to the constitution and therefore its earlier promise of a referendum no longer applies. The opponents say the treaty is the same as the constitution so the promise of a referendum must apply. But they want that because they think people will over-react to any vote on Europe and this will help to sink the EU or, amongst the most deranged, lead to our withdrawal. They are hoping to make political capital (or plain mischief) from Britain’s deep Euroscepticism – see chart [YouGov polling data]. No side is bothering to make a thoughtful case for the treaty, or against it.
The real situation, at least as I see it, is as follows:
1. Main purpose: the treaty provides some much needed administrative streamlining and better ‘machinery of government’. This should improve the quality of EU decision-making and accountability (a bit).It also does a few things that will help Europe in a globalising world. [see text / documentation / BBC guide / Guardian Q&A]
2. Transfer of power to EU; the treaty does pool some sovereignty (or transfer power) in some issues (many trivial, some important)… this happens because we give up some vetoes (unanimous voting) for majority voting. But the sceptics always think of loss of vetoes as a loss of power, and vetoes as ‘surrendered’. This is wrong – often a move to majority voting means other countries can’t block what we want to achieve through the EU. People think the power goes to ‘Brussels’, but it largely remains with the Council of Ministers. When we need to express power collectively (eg. in international relations or development) the removal of vetoes can give us more power.
3. It’s the same. The amending treaty is little different to the constitution in its effect, though its form is completely different. The amending treaty is tediously defined as a series of textual amendments to the existing treaties (Rome, Maastricht, Nice etc), whereas one of the great benefits of the constitution was a consolidation into a single text, albeit a long and complicated text. In claiming it is different, the government is focussing on its form, not its function, and is being very disingenuous. The main difference is the dropping of a few symbols like the anthem etc. See European scrutiny committee report, especially Annex 1 (p.25) and BBC reporting of this for comparison.
4. Some of it is stupid and unnecessary. The Charter of Fundamental Rights is ridiculous and counter-productive (and UK has an opt-out of dubious resilience). The danger of defining too many rights that are not profound or deeply supported in society, is that the currency of rights becomes devalued. There is something troubling about a document that includes the rights to ‘access to free placement services’, ‘right to social security’ and ‘family protection’ in the same charter than protects the right to life and freedom from torture. It even seems to ban school kids having a Saturday job. We should stick with the European Convention on Human Rights, which deals with the rights that really matter, and make sure that really works.
5. There is no case for a referendum on the treaty (and there wasn’t on the constitution). We are, rightly, sparing in what we ask people to vote on – we leave scrutiny of difficult legislation to elected representatives, and only bother people when the changes are fundamental – ie. in/out of EU, devolution, regional assemblies etc. The issues at stake here are no more significant than those considered in domestic bills and trusted to parliament. And many domestic bills shift more powers around than this treaty – eg. the recent terrorism legislation. We know people are hugely confused or wilfully ignorant about the EU and this treaty – see for example polling for the Sunday Times, from 2004 – which shows people believe that the EU has more power than it has and would take more than it will, and so it is unclear on what understanding people would base their answers to the simple question about whether you support the treaty. One might argue that a referendum will force politicians to explain the treaty properly. I strongly believe that any referendum should present people with strong clear choices that they can understand. The difference between ‘yes’ and ‘no’ for this treaty is very obtuse – to the point where few involved can actually explain it.
6. EU is an elite programme that needs a new mandate. The development of the European Union has long been a programme of the political and business elites – and current treaty is no exception. Ordinary folk have usually misread it from one extreme or another – either as a happy-clappy fellowship of nations with liberal values or as a sinister plot by power-crazed bureaucrats. It is neither. the EU provides cover for politicians to do what they know or believe to be right, but often find hard to sell to their electorates. That cannot continue for two reasons: firstly the EU institutions don’t really like or understand the basic principles of ‘subsidiarity‘, ‘proportionality‘ and ‘conferral‘ that supposedly underpin the balance of powers between member states and the EU. As a result it does too much, does it badly and does it with poor democratic accountability. It is right to be Euro-sceptic about this. Secondly, we need the EU to do more outward-looking things – be a global player on behalf of the member states… and that will require more pooling of sovereignty. This is where the EU needs more support and less scepticism. So big changes are needed, and the public will have to understand them and want them. In other words, the EU needs a renewed popular mandate based on what it now is and should become. The mandate secured in 1975 for continued membership of the ‘Common Market’ has run out.
7. Have a meaningful referendum in the next parliament. I think at some point the EU will have to stop being an elite programme and be respected and accepted by the wider public – a point we are far away from now – or we leave it. To do this, we need a proper vision and debate about the future of the EU, both in the UK and in the EU itself. The real future of the EU is obscured in the treaty and there is virtually no debate about what it will be doing in even 10 years (though the budget review might help with that). But this is what we should be discussing – not the cycle of Commission appointments or voting system for comitology or other arcane details. A referendum would present people with a stark in/out choice and force us all to examine what we want the EU for and where it is going.
To summarise: the treaty has virtually the same effect as the constitution and is a useful improvement to the EU. But it is not of such consequence that it justifies a referendum (and it never did). However, the popular mandate for EU programme from the British people has expired and needs to be regained. Legitimate scepticism and a bold outward-looking vision need to face down Euro-phobia and the globalisation-denial of the Little Englanders. I think the best strategy for the government would be for parliament to decide on the treaty in 2008, but for the government to promise a referendum on EU membership for the next parliament – and then present a vision and make the case.
Other political parties could declare for a referendum or even for leaving the EU in their election manifesto. Europe would be a central issue at the next election. It’s about time it was taken seriously – the last time it was an election issue, it was William Hague pledging to ‘save the pound’.
And that was quite enough of that sort of thing.