By Simon Juenkins (THE TIMES, 12/08/07):
The statement could not have been clearer. On ratifying a new European constitution, Labour said in its 2005 manifesto, “We will put it to the British people in a referendum and campaign wholeheartedly for a yes vote.”
Tony Blair added: “That is an issue of trust for me with the electorate.” Nor would there be any fudging over the abortive 2004 constitution rejected by the French and the Dutch. Blair said, “You can’t have a . . . rejection of the treaty and then you just bring it back with a few amendments and say we will have another go.” Whatever emerged from any revision was for the people to approve. What could be clearer?
The answer is mud. No sooner was the government elected than Blair did exactly what he said he would not do. Facing a salvaged version of the 2004 constitution, he asserted that a referendum on it would be “completely and utterly absurd”. On taking office this year Gordon Brown agreed, despite his pledge to “listen to the people”. There cannot have been a more instant and brazen U-turn on an election promise in modern history.
Is there any case for this U-turn? There has been no war or national emergency and certainly no change of government. Yet Blair and Brown claimed three things of the new “treaty”, translated from the French into near incomprehensible English a week ago. They claimed it was no longer a constitution but a “treaty”, a difference that altered everything. They claimed they had negotiated “opt-outs” for Britain, which also altered everything at least as far as Britain was concerned. And they claimed the document was therefore of such triviality as no longer to be in need of popular consent other than by a whipped majority in parliament.
Since these arguments are now formal government policy they must be taken seriously. First, the change of name of the 277-page document is meaningless. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who presided over the negotiations last spring, admitted she was “renaming” the 2004 constitution only as a device to help Britain, France and others to squirm out of any referendum pledge.
A treaty sounds like a reversible deal between sovereign states, while a constitution sounds appropriate to sovereign state itself. Merkel was thus offering “to use different terminology without changing the substance . . . to make the constitution a success”. When asked what was different she jokingly referred to the dropping of mention of a European Union flag and of Beethoven’s anthem.
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, shattered by France’s rejection of the constitution that he had crafted, saluted the new document as confirming all “nine institutional advances” of the old one. The Irish government referred to the treaty as “90%” of the old constitution. The Spanish government raised that to “98%”. Open Europe, the think tank, calculated that of some 250 proposals only 10 had been altered. As Lord (Digby) Jones, the industry minister, stated (before his peerage), “This is a con to call it a treaty: it’s exactly the same. It’s a constitution.” Nothing could be clearer.
As for Britain’s proclaimed “opt-outs”, they are moot. It is true they are substantive, at least on law and order, cross-border justice and foreign policy. But similar opt-outs were being negotiated for Britain under the old constitution. The Swedish government even told its people, eager for similar easements, that our new opt-outs were really just “clarifications” and would anyway be subject to oversight by the reinforced European courts, notably in matters of human rights.
Blair’s pretence that the “new” treaty was so diluted that a vote on it would be “like holding a referendum on an open-plan office” was an insult to the public’s intelligence. If the opt-outs were good enough for a referendum two years ago, surely they are today. What is sauce for the constitutional goose is sauce for the treaty gander.
There might have been some validity in the government’s third claim, that European treaties have never required referendums, had Blair not rejected it in 2005. New constitutional arrangements for Europe have not hitherto been subject to referendum, including Britain’s original entry in 1973, the Single European Act of 1986 or the Maastricht treaty of 1992. The only British referendum on Europe was under Labour in 1975 to confirm the Tory decision to sign the Treaty of Rome without a referendum.
Such historical allusions are beside the point. Europe has been moving towards a more accountable politics. The issue is a pledge and a trust. On Europe British politicians have been all over the shop. In the 1970s Margaret Thatcher campaigned for Europe. In the 1980s Blair declared that “only Labour” would have the guts to withdraw from it. In 2005 we had Blair and Brown promising a referendum as vital for a new 27-state Europe, and refusing one in 2007.
In 2004 Blair persuaded Jacques Chirac that the people of Europe should be asked their view on the decades in which power had leached from their national assemblies before agreeing to another massive transfer. What better climax to the leaderships of both men than a ringing popular confirmation of the project? In April 2004 Blair declared, “Let the people have the final say . . . Let the issue be put, let battle be joined.”
Blair was right. The new constitution/treaty extends EU discipline into new areas of human rights, transport, law enforcement and social regulation. It creates a continent-wide “legal space” and another covering defence and foreign policy, albeit in embryo. It specifically enables future ministerial councils to extend Brussels’ power and to alter veto rights without a need for new treaties. This centralist “power creep” can thus be rendered virtually self-validating.
In 1997 Blair signed the Maastricht social chapter (originally “opted-out” by John Major) because it was “in the manifesto”. Brown at the Treasury failed to implement most of it, much to the benefit of British labour market flexibility. This may now be subject to judicial challenge. An expanded concept of human rights is intended to see common standards of welfare benefits across the continent. As any student of European health and safety regulation knows, not a year passes without such intervention growing. The sole constraint imposed on the growth of this power has been popular, from the 2005 referendums.
For all these reasons public consent for any further extension of the collective power of the EU would be both prudent and democratic. What was true of past treaties is irrelevant. Brown claims to want to “listen to the people”. There could be no better time to listen than on the future governance of Britain.
Despite all these arguments, Brown appears to have run scared, fleeing democracy for the cover of oligarchy. The issue for Brown is not whether he promised a referendum, which as a member of Blair’s cabinet he did, but that he might not like the outcome. On present evidence he would probably but not certainly lose, but that need not be catastrophic. Losing a European referendum did not wreck those countries that had the courage to hold one in 2005. A British no would merely put us where France and Holland were then, in the vanguard of a demand for a new Europe to be properly accountable to its people.
This present spectacle was well described by Jose Manuel Barroso, the EU president, after the 2005 debacle, that the people of Europe be forced to “go on voting [on the constitution] until they get it right”. A British (or other) rejection, which under the unanimity rule would trigger the collapse of the treaty, would be a riposte to Barroso and his like. It would tell them in turn to “go on trying until they get it right”.
Any but the most ardent rejectionist accepts that a new European constitution is needed. A governmental structure designed for half a dozen states cannot handle 27. The requirements of global trade, global security and global humanity demand new institutions. But the past and present EU is largely unsuited to these requirements. It remains essentially a cartel of rich states, barricading their borders against world trade and protecting their commerce against internal and external competition. Its institutions are lethargic and corrupt, their accounts unauditable. The case for rejecting, not strengthening, them and “trying again” is overwhelming.
This is why Blair was right to cry “Let battle commence” and why Brown is wrong to run for his bunker. Let battle commence indeed.