Tonight, Europe’s leaders will be picking over some Euro-trivia along with their hors d’oeuvres. The Austrians are worried that Germany might nick their medical students. The Poles want an extra court official on the European Court of Justice. The Bulgarians want to use the word “evro” instead of “euro” – which has upset the European Central Bank. These are, apparently, the last stumbling blocks to agreement on the draft EU treaty.
No one at this dinner will be asking why what was intended to be a free trading zone is steadily granting itself the power to legislate in almost every area of national life. No one will be expressing concern that a majority of citizens, in 16 out of 27 member states, say they want no extension of EU power. No one will ask whether it would be better to return to an à la carte menu rather than proceed with the fixed-price group dinner – same dish for everyone, only choice house white or house red – that leaves such a bad taste in the mouth. No. My guess is they’ll just keep munching.
Our Government keeps saying that this treaty is not the same as the old constitution, despite the mockery of almost everyone who has read it. But in one way it is different: it’s even less readable. And that, as senior politicians in Germany and Belgium and Italy have explained, is deliberate. This is an utterly cynical exercise, and our own politicians are cheapened by it.
What’s in the treaty? Britain will lose around 50 vetoes in areas including health, energy and laws for the self-employed. Our power to form blocking coalitions with other nations will also be considerably diminished, because the thresholds will be changed. So proposals that we have been successfully blocking – one of my favourites is making the police give every suspect a piece of A4, listing their EU rights – will almost certainly become law. That’s before you get to any “red lines”.
From a wider European point of view, the democratic gap between every nation and its citizens will grow again. Nation states will lose control of policing and justice matters. It used to be thought that the ability to define what was a crime and what was not, to police that crime and to determine the appropriate sentence for it, were matters for sovereign states alone. When the European Community was set up, justice and home affairs were kept strictly separate, as was foreign policy. This treaty waves those principles aside. That is why this treaty is historic, not the historical footnote that the politicians would have us believe.
Is this the right direction for Europe to take? Are we are really going to meet the Asian challenge by increasing regulations on business, creating a 3,500-strong diplomatic corps and spending £12 billion on an EU space programme? The Eurofighter airplanes that rolled off the production line last month were 20 years late and designed for the Cold War. There could hardly be a better symbol of Europe’s need to be nimbler, focused on fewer issues.
Yet no one in power seems prepared to make that argument. In the past few weeks, the British Government has sparred with the media over the meaning of its “red lines” – the few places where it has dared to stand up for its independence. But criticism from the European Scrutiny Committee and others has made it clear that these safeguards are not watertight, because they will be open to challenge in the courts.
The reality of today’s Europe is that politicians do not know the consequences of the laws they approve, because the European Court of Justice can extend the scope of EU powers in so many ways. The US Supreme Court, on which it is modelled, has extended its power far beyond that ever envisaged by the Founding Fathers. But at least America has a culture of judicial restraint. The EU has none. The British cannot evade this by saying that no Parliament can bind its successors. We voters cannot throw out EU laws by changing government.
Those who want the new treaty argue that it is just another step in the process of centralisation. But just because ordinary people are only gradually waking up to the drip-dripping away of their power does not mean that they should be denied a say in it. Some argue that a referendum would end up being a vote on the direction of the EU. But it should be. The EU needs to change direction, and its citizens want it to. The battleground is not Britain versus Europe, it is the elites versus the people.
The irony is that, six years ago, EU leaders seemed to agree. In the Laeken declaration of 2001, they specifically asked for more transparency, democracy and subsidiarity (powers returned to nation states). What they got was Valèry Giscard d’Estaing, who subverted the process and dismissed proposals by the Dutch and British, notably the Labour MP Gisela Stuart, for greater democracy. His constitution remained the template even after French and Dutch voters rejected it, I suspect partly for want of a clearly spelt-out alternative.
Tony Blair ducked making the case for a different kind of Europe. But the EU arguably needs Britain more than we need the EU. Britain is one of the biggest financial contributors to the Union. Its armed forces are central to EU hopes of wielding any real humanitarian or defence role. It is the world’s financial centre. The Dutch and French were not banished to Lapland when they said no to the constitution. But by acting as though he could be, Mr Blair left his successor in a tight spot.
The whole question of Gordon Brown’s premiership has now become one of trust. Can he risk being party to an EU stitch-up? He may not have the stomach to pick any real fight over dinner tonight. But if he could give Parliament a free vote, or better still give us all a vote, it might prove to be his salvation – and, ironically, that of the EU.