Getting Irate So That You Don't Have To

Getting Irate So That You Don't Have To

Wednesday, 29 August 2007

Sole-Searching On The EU

I've been in denial about the EU Reform Treaty and the calls for a referendum; conscious that I need to get a grip on the arguments, but not wanting to take the plunge. Now I've finally given it a go I have to say I'm not much the wiser.

I chose the BBC as the site most likely to give a neutral view of things. The headlines appear to be as follows:
when compared to the Constitution, the Treaty drops references to the EU flag and anthem;
the new President of the European Council will be more of a figurehead than the current President of the Commission, and will hold the title for 30 months, but will have no executive powers;
the treaty creates a single figurehead for EU foreign policy, speaking on behalf of the EU's 27 member states, but only able to implement policies that member states have agreed unanimously;
it appears impossible that Britain would lose its seat on the UN Security Council;
there appears to be a possibility than the EU may seek to extend its own legal personality - Britain does not have cast-iron guarantees on this;
the "ratchet clause" (allowing member states to agree that decisions currently taken only by means of a unanimous vote can in future be taken by a mere majority vote) and the provisions allowing the objectives of most EU policies to be amended can be enacted without an intergovernmental conference, but member states would still have to take the decision unanimously, and all national parliaments would have to approve;
there is some token provision for the European Parliament and national parliaments will be given a chance to challenge legislation forwarded by the Commission;
there is a scary "thou shalt do what thou is told" clause which says "National parliaments shall contribute actively to the good functioning of the Union";
the EU's Charter of Fundamental Rights becomes legally binding, and there is huge debate - ranging from those who say that this paves the way for the European Court of Justice to rewrite national laws in the social sphere (on strikes, collective bargaining, social security, working hours, and so on) and those who say the charter applies to member states only when they are implementing EU law - as to just this will mean for Britain;
there is the usual debate about how many powers are genuinely and newly transferred from member states to the EU, and the BBC site offers precious little guidance, although it does say that we may lose our veto on social security for migrants;
the UK's ability to block unfavourable legislation is reduced by new voting systems which have come about because of enlargement;
some restrictions on the powers of the European Court to rule on cases dealing with EU justice and home affairs legislation (laws on asylum and visas, illegal immigration, or judicial co-operation and so on) would be removed - the UK has negotiated the right to pick and choose which EU policies to sign up to, but if we signed up to a piece of legislation then we would be affected by the rulings (and we've already signed up on asylum and immigration, among others).

So, there we have it. And what are we supposed to make of all that ? As little as possible, a cynic might say, so that the EU and member governments can continue on their merry way with as little public scrutiny as it's possible to get away with.

In fact one of the side effects of this being proposed in a treaty rather than via the Constitution is that it's much harder for Joe Public to understand - there's lots of "An Article 40 shall be inserted, with the wording of Article 52; it shall be amended as follows: (a) the following Article heading shall be inserted: 'Ratification and entry into force'; (b) in paragraph 1 the words..." etc.

Will it change the world ? Will it radically alter Britain's relationship with the EU and lead to a significant further transfer of power ? No, it doesn't sound like it to me. And until recently I'd have concluded that that should mean that calls for a referendum are not warranted. And then I started thinking some more.

Since we entered the (then) EEC in 1972 our relationship with it, and our ability to govern our own affairs have changed hugely. Before he died Ted Heath pretty much admitted that he lied to the British people about loss of sovereignty. And it is arguable that two of the most significant treaties we signed up to were long after his time - the Single European Act and Maastricht. In the 35 years since we joined we have had but one referendum on the subject, in 1975. Had the British people known then what they know now about Europe and our relationship with it, it strikes me as inconceivable that we would have voted to stay in. The fact that we have moved from an economic agreement to something nearing political union without the people being consulted is little short of scandalous.

What makes this any different from a whole range of other issues where the government has essentially ignored the wishes of the people (for instance over capital punishment) ? What is wrong with the democratic checks and balances whereby if the people don't like what their government is doing then they can just vote for someone else ?

What I think makes EU treaties fundamental is that they are about the mechanisms of government and often, to a greater or lesser degree, about who governs us and how they do it. This is different from many straight-forward policy areas like how the economy is run, the state of our prisons etc.. Many of the decisions made within EU treaties are about our delegating legislative or judicial authority to people or bodies in a different country over which we have little or no control.

Blair's government went referendum-crazy in its early years. The Scots, Welsh, Northern Irish, Londoners and residents of Hartlepool, to name but a few got referenda of one form or another. It almost became laughable in the end. But in one sense the referenda were justified, because they were about how the voters were governed, or about the transfer of power from one body to another.

Take this to its conclusion and there can be no question. There has to be a referendum on this, and on every future EU treaty. Some of them may be expensive rubber-stamping exercises but no matter; you can't take short cuts where the delegation of governmental power is concerned.

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