The Lisbon Treaty and the Tories (with update 24 May 09)

One of the strongest of many reasons for not voting Conservative in the European Parliament elections on 4 June or, especially, in the impending general election is the Tory threat to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, something that’s not only weirdly irrelevant (Britain has already ratified the treaty) but also potentially disastrous for Britain in its likely consequences.

Today’s Guardian (22 May 09) publishes my letter on this subject (text here) from which I hope the main points emerge clearly enough.  I make no complaint about the usual editorial abbreviations of the letter as originally submitted, although inevitably they have ironed out some significant nuances.  Here is the full text as sent to the Guardian:


You’re clearly right to warn against voting for a Conservative Party hell-bent on deserting the centre-right mainstream group in the European parliament in favour of a new rag-tag far-right grouping (Conservatives: continental drift, editorial, May 20).  But another even more cogent reason not to vote Conservative is David Cameron’s reckless pledge to hold a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty if it hasn’t yet come into effect when (or if) he becomes prime minister. Every single government in the EU supports the treaty as an essential reform following the recent expansion of the EU, and in the light of guarantees now being negotiated there’s a good chance that Ireland will vote to ratify it in a second referendum, followed by the handful of other countries which have not completed ratification pending Ireland’s decision.  Britain however, unlike Ireland, has already ratified the treaty and formally lodged the ratification instrument with Rome: it’s not a law and can’t simply be repealed or otherwise reversed, so a referendum would probably have no legal effect although its political impact could be devastating.

With the right-wing tabloids and much of the rest of the media psychotically Europhobic, and the Tories officially campaigning against the treaty, the result of a UK referendum would be almost a foregone conclusion.  This act of wanton and quite unnecessary sabotage would wreck Britain’s standing in Europe.  Few of our partners would accept the demise of an essential reform treaty solely because of a UK veto.  The end result could well be Britain’s de facto expulsion from the European Union — something that even the Tory leadership claims not to want.

Every vote for the Conservatives, indeed every abstention from voting, either on 4 June or at next year’s general election, risks helping to precipitate this potential disaster.

Yours sincerely
Brian Barder

I’m grateful once again to Peter Harvey for bringing me up to date on the current position regarding ratifications of the Lisbon Treaty and progress towards a second referendum in Ireland:

The UK has indeed lodged the [instrument of ratification of the] treaty, in Rome. I think that was because it all started with the Treaty of Rome. Anyway,
There is no way, apart from renegotiation, that the UK can get out of it.

The Lisbon Treaty has been ratified by all countries except the Czech Republic, Poland and Germany, as well as Ireland. In the first two of those countries it has been passed by parliament but is awaiting the presidential signature, and both presidents are Eurosceptics. In fact, they are waiting for the result of the Irish referendum. If that is for the treaty, they will really have no choice but to sign. In Germany the Constitutional Court has yet to pronounce on it.


There is also the British view that anything can be repealed, which
stems from the UK having no constitutional mechanism providing for things that can’t be, or indeed things that need a qualified majority. Brits don’t like the idea of binding commitments.

It’s boringly predictable that among the comments on my letter on the Guardian‘s website, and probably on this post here, will be the charge of arrogance and contempt for democracy in seeking to deprive the British people of their right to express their views on an allegedly controversial treaty which its critics claim will transfer yet more power from Britain to Brussels.  But there’s no substance to any such complaint.  The decision not to hold a referendum did not, as alleged, break the Labour Party’s promise to allow a referendum on the proposed new EU Constitution treaty: the Lisbon version is self-evidently a different document and not a constitution, whatever else it might be.  The ratification procedure for Lisbon — approval of ratification by both houses of parliament — was the same as that used for the much more far-reaching Maastricht treaty, and other EU treaties which have collectively shaped the EU as it is today.  Britain has legally ratified Lisbon, and that should be that:  no possible need for a referendum on a decision already taken, and no point in holding one.

But the clinching argument is the likely consequences of holding a referendum, which (as argued in my Guardian letter) would be potentially disastrous for Britain.  Political leaders must be held responsible for assessing the probable consequences of their actions and policies, just as the rest of us are.  The Tories’ persistence in demanding and promising a procedurally irrelevant referendum on the Lisbon treaty, despite its appalling risks, is bound to arouse the suspicion that it represents a limp surrender by Cameron to the serious Europhobes in his party, probably led by the shadow (and presumably future) foreign secretary, William Hague:  people whose real aim is to end UK membership of the European Union.  That suspicion is greatly aggravated by the Tories’ parallel (and almost equally damaging) promise to leave the mainstream centre-right group in the European parliament and to form a new far-right and essentially anti-EU group with some pretty unsavoury allies, especially from east and central Europe.  The Guardian’s editorial on that subject, referred to in my letter, makes an unanswerable case against the Tories on those grounds too.

Update (24 May 09): Over on the always interesting Labour List blog, this post (reproduced there) has attracted  a sizeable volume of comments, all of them hostile, many savagely so.  Even when you put aside those which are merely hysterical or scurrilous, there’s still a sizeable body of opinion (represented in a blog designed for “Labour minded people” to debate issues and exchange views) which is viscerally hostile to the European enterprise of which Britain is a part, which wilfully blinds itself to the likely consequences for our country and for the rest of Europe of a British referendum on the Lisbon treaty resulting in its rejection, and which has persuaded itself that if Britain alone is out of step with the rest of the EU on the procedural reforms made necessary by EU expansion, the rest of Europe will just have to come round to the British point of view — and will meekly do so.  How adults can indulge themselves with this kind of fantasy is a rather worrying mystery, but there it is.  Anyway, it’s easy enough to dismiss my views (as some comments on Labour List do) as ignorant, arrogant, riddled with error, sad, and just cause for having me strung up.  Labour bloggers in Labour territory need thick skins!  The authors of such comments might, however, care to spend five minutes reading Will Hutton‘s sobering article in today’s Observer, which (dare I say?) reproduces many of my own points but in even starker language.  Extracts:

Europe remains the Tory modernisers’ blind spot. David Cameron and William Hague must know the risk they are running. They know, or should know, that a referendum on the EU constitutional treaty once every member state has signed it, as is likely this autumn if the Irish vote yes in a second referendum, is a European suicide note; 26 other countries are not going to spend another three years ratifying another treaty amended to meet David Cameron’s and his party’s prejudices. They are condemned to tell Britain that while some cosmetic concessions may be made, essentially the body of the treaty must stand.

If the British hold a referendum and there is a no vote, then the consequence will be that Britain must withdraw from the EU. So either this is a one-off stunt which the party leadership knows it must retreat from once the treaty is signed off or a ploy it knows will lead to a yes or no vote on de-facto European Union membership within two years of winning next year’s election. Either way, it hardly inspires much confidence.

So these European parliamentary elections really matter. … Along with the BNP, the opinion polls suggest that more than 50% of the vote will go to anti-EU parties. I’m not sure the British know the consequence of their vote, but a dynamic is in train that will lead to our exit from the EU.

As a pro-European, I don’t want this to happen, but I’ve begun to wonder whether it wouldn’t be better for Europe. Only living outside the EU as the sceptics want – creating a politically diminished Britain fit for hedge funds, tax-avoiders and asset-strippers – is likely to convince the British majority that the option is a disaster.

Meanwhile, the Europeans can deepen the EU, along the way empowering the European Parliament. When a Tory government leads an impoverished, embittered Britain back into the EU in 25 years’ time, reality will have imposed political maturity. And elections for the European Parliament will be much more serious.  [Emphasis added]

“Sad”?  Well, yes.  Sometimes the truth is sad.


7 Responses

  1. Peter Harvey says:

    Thank you very much for the mention. I fear that the matter is rather more complicated than I thought initially. The worry being expressed in Spain, and presumably elsewhere in Europe, is that an early general election in the chaotic UK will be followed by a Conservative victory before the Irish referendum, that the Conservatives will then hold an immediate referendum on Lisbon and, if it goes against it, that they will try to reverse the UK’s ratification. I simply do not know if it is possible for a state to change its mind about ratification of a treaty before the treaty comes into effect. Clearly it is impossible when it is in effect (pacta sunt servanda) but, whatever the legal position, there is scope for real political chaos if the Tories are in a position to move against the EU before Lisbon has been ratified by the remaining states and has come into effect.

    That would utterly wreck what (very) little reputation the UK still has in the EU. The UK was a driving force behind enlargement of the Union. It was always known that inclusion of the eastern countries would lead to a weakening of the ‘deep’ Union that had existed beforehand; it is also the case that the entry of Turkey, which has been championed by the UK, would increase that effect. There are good reasons why the eastern countries had to be incorporated nevertheless, and there are good reasons why Turkey should be included (my own view is that on balance, and it is not a simple matter, Turkey should be allowed to join). But, and this is the point, the present enlarged EU of 27 needs Lisbon to function properly; moreover, without it any further enlargement is out of the question. This means that we might find ourselves in the position of having a Union that has been enlarged with the active support and encouragement of the UK, but that the same UK is now denying the EU the mechanism that it needs to function in its enlarged state and to undertake further enlargement in the future. Perfidious Albion indeed!

    Brian writes: I agree with almost all of this, Peter, and am grateful for it. But I’m not sure about the last three words. I don’t think ‘perfidy’ comes into it. The reality is that both the major parties are split on the EU, although the split in the Labour Party is much less visible because it’s mainly confined to the grass roots: there’s a fair degree of unanimity in the parliamentary leadership in support of pro-European policies, including of course the Lisbon treaty. The Conservatives, though, are split on Europe at all levels, from the strongly pro-Europe Ken Clarke (back on the front bench) right across to a sizeable gang of passionate Europhobes who pretty clearly include the shadow foreign secretary, William Hague. The Tory die-hards in the shires are also split, although the Europhobes and Eurosceptics are probably in the majority there. David Cameron has the unenviable task of trying to keep his party together on this as on other major issues, and that inevitably means compromises. To keep the Europhobes inside the Tory tent he has been forced to concede the promise of a referendum on the Lisbon treaty, although he personally must know that the procedural changes proposed in the treaty are essential if the much enlarged EU is to continue to function — especially if further expansion (which I personally don’t favour, anyway for a few years) is to happen. Yet Cameron and the Tory party officially favour expansion, as did Margaret Thatcher, for precisely the reason you (Peter) describe. Hence the contradiction in Tory policy on which your comment focuses. It’s a terrible muddle and potentially deeply damaging both to the EU and to Britain’s position in it, just as you say (and as I have argued above). But I doubt if the deliberate deception or bad faith implied by “perfidious Albion” is actually part of the brew. (The cowardice of New Labour under both Blair and Brown, scared off by the anti-Europe tabloids and other Murdoch organs, in failing to show some bold leadership in defence of a robustly constructive European policy, is a related but separate topic for another day.)

  2. Peter Harvey says:


    I understand your reluctance but I assure you that if the situation that I have described comes about those words will be thought, spoken, heard, written and read in European media and political circles. States are expected to be coherent in their international commitments; while the French and Dutch referendums are quoted as justification by British Europhobes, the fact is that there was never any intention by the no campaigns in those countries to leave the EU. The British parties are, as you say, divided. I remember, as you will do, that the Conservatives took the UK into the Common market (as it then was) against much Labour opposition. Now Labour says that it is pro-European but it is difficult to overestimate the disillusionment (to put it mildly) with a party that appeared in 1997 to be led by a pre-European Social Democrat but which turned out to be neo-liberal in economics and a Trojan horse for the very worst of the USA right, over Iraq and also at the 2005 enlargement summit.

    That in itself is enough to make people wonder just how far the UK is to be trusted. And what is seen is the UK, not the political infighting behind it.

    Brian writes: I don’t doubt that you’re right, Peter, and that European media and political circles will indeed blame ‘perfidious Albion’ if and when a new Tory government holds a referendum on whether to ratify a treaty that we have already ratified, or else tries to persuade the rest of the EU that the treaty must be re-negotiated just because a single newly elected European government doesn’t like it. I merely observed that however wrong-headed and ill-fated such behaviour might be, it’s not actually dishonest or informed by bad faith, as ‘perfidious’ would imply. As for New Labour’s economic policies and behaviour over Iraq, these seem to me to be separate and quite different issues; and our New Labour government was not alone in Europe in espousing them. That doesn’t make them right, but nor does it justify the label of perfidy, however inevitable it may be that that tired old cliché will be trotted out all over Europe by the intellectually lazy.

  3. John Miles says:

    I’ve a nasty feeling some of us Europhiles may be losing the common touch.

    You say “the clinching argument is the likely consequences of holding a referendum, which (as
    argued in my Guardian letter) would be potentially disastrous for Britain.”
    Do you honestly think your “clinching argument” would cut any ice with anyone who’s not already a committed Europhile?
    Your letter goes on to slag off the Tories, and those who support them.
    One of the things that really upsets the man on the Clapham omnibus about party politics is the way they slag each other off whenever they run out of arguments.
    My guess is that your letter will persuade at least as many people to vote against you as to vote in your favour.
     You say, “The decision not to hold a referendum did not, as alleged, break the Labour Party’s promise to allow a referendum on the proposed new EU Constitution treaty: the Lisbon version is self-evidently a different document and not a constitution, whatever else it might be.”
    You’re probably quite correct, as usual, but many people don’t see it that way.
    Everybody knows – sorry – some people think, that the real reason Mr Brown, a man notoriously allergic to any kind of voting, ruled out this referendum was because he was frightened of losing.
    My guess is that most Brits are hoping against hope that the Irish people won’t be juggernauted iinto saying “Yes,” by people who think they know better than they do.
    You’re worried that European governmentds might beupset if we were to change our mind.
    Didn’t these people realise that Mr Brown’s government is on a knife edge, that many of his electorate believe he’s already broken a promise made to them, that the opposition have promised us a referendum and what the result of this is likely to be?
    Anyone who takes Mr Brown’s word for anything – unless of course it suits his book – must be out of his tiny mind, and shouldn’t be allowed out without a nurse.
    Your supporters seem to be top people – European statesmen and people like Will Hutton.
    What of the silent majority, the people of England who have never spoken yet (or so I’ve seen it alleged.)
    Quite a few of them want out.
    Many ordinary people see Europe as somewhere people like the twice- (or is it thrice-?) digraced Mr Mandleson, together with Mr and Mrs Kinnock and an awful number of corrupt politicians live life with a capital L at the taxpayers’ expense, and where half the accounts never actually get audited.
    Will Hutton seems to suggest that it might be better for Europe if were booted out.
    This is very likely true.
    It might be better for us too.
    I’m a Europhile, but I can’t see it can help us – or them – for us to join unless or until that’s what the majority of us want to do.
    You seem to find this sad, but that’s life.
    We can’t all get all we want all the time. 
    Ask AE Housman.

    Brian writes: Sorry, John, but I don’t recognise my arguments from your re-definition of them. I haven’t suggested that “ordinary people” share my view, nor that I’m concerned that “European governments might be upset if we were to change our mind” over ratification of the Lisbon treaty — even supposing that some mechanism could be found for doing so. The kernel of my concern, I suppose, is that a general scepticism about or in some cases outright hostility to “Europe”, fanned by Conservative and media elements on the far right whose real purpose is to get Britain out of the EU, would be likely to produce a thumping majority in a referendum against ratifying the treaty: that a UK rejection of the treaty would be likely to set off a train of events culminating in our forced withdrawal from the EU (even though that was not the question put to the referendum): and that according to reasonably reliable opinion polls there is probably still a majority of voters in the country who favour remaining in the EU, even though they would have voted for something likely to have the opposite effect. I also believe, of course, that for all its shortcomings the European enterprise is an inspiring success, that Britain’s chief claim to any benign influence in the world derives mainly from our membership of it, and that to leave it would condemn us to virtual irrelevance in international affairs, still forced to conform to the great majority of EU directives and policies but no longer having any voice in their formulation. So I disagree strongly and profoundly with your suggestion that “it [our exit from the EU] might be better for us too”.

    I also observe that Lord Mandelson [sic] was not ‘disgraced’ on either of the two occasions when he was dismissed by Blair: on both occasions he was fully exonerated subsequently, but on both occasions Blair characteristically rushed to judgement first and ascertained the facts only afterwards, in his usual terror of what the Sun and Mr Murdoch’s other organs might say if he deferred sentence until after the verdict. I also doubt very much whether either Lord Kinnock or Glenys (technically Lady) Kinnock MEP has ever acted corruptly in his or her life (I declare an interest in that I know them both and believe absolutely in their integrity). If you are referring to the conflict between Neil Kinnock when he was an EC Commissioner and the lady who purported to expose corruption in the management of EU finances, there were two sides to that saga and it would be rash to denounce Kinnock out of hand without extremely cogent evidence.

    There are other things in your comment that seriously misrepresent — or perhaps misunderstand — what I wrote, but I will mention here only one more: to make a reasoned criticism of a major aspect of official Conservative Party policy by pointing out that its effect, if implemented, would be likely to lead to a great disaster for our country, really can’t be equated with gratuitously “slagging off the Tories and those who support them”. To describe it in that way is no substitute for reasoned counter-argument.

  4. Peter Harvey says:

    the people of England who have never spoken yet

    Chesterton’s poem The Secret People is a lament that the people of England have let dreadful things happen all round them, and to them, without ever bothering to speak out when they should have done (with strong hints that this was because they were drunk), and now it is probably too late:

    We saw the King as they killed him, and his face was proud and pale;
    And a few men talked of freedom, while England talked of ale.

    We did and died like lions, to keep ourselves in chains,
    We lay in living ruins; firing and fearing not
    The strange fierce face of the Frenchmen who knew for what they fought,
    And the man who seemed to be more than a man we strained against and broke;
    And we broke our own rights with him. And still we never spoke.

    We hear men speaking for us of new laws strong and sweet,
    Yet is there no man speaketh as we speak in the street.
    It may be we shall rise the last as Frenchmen rose the first,
    Our wrath come after Russia’s wrath and our wrath be the worst.
    It may be we are meant to mark with our riot and our rest
    God’s scorn for all men governing. It may be beer is best.
    But we are the people of England; and we have not spoken yet.
    Smile at us, pay us, pass us. But do not quite forget.

    And, as a matter of fact, many ordinary people in Europe see the UK as somewhere an awful number of corrupt politicians live life with a capital L at the taxpayers’ expense.

    Brian writes: Lovely stuff from an unjustly neglected versifier. But I doubt if the number of corrupt UK politicians liberating money from the taxpayers’ pockets has put us more than half-way up the European and American league table, whatever “ordinary people in Europe” (presumably Europe includes Britain, as John Miles points out!) might assume from the unbelievable hullabaloo currently in progress here.

  5. John Miles says:

    “And, as a matter of fact, many ordinary people in Europe see the UK as somewhere an awful number of corrupt politicians live life with a capital L at the taxpayers’ expense,” says Peter.
    So do many ordinary people in England.

  6. John Miles says:

    Here we go again!
    You’re quite right. “slagging off the Tories” is a touch OTT.
    But such phrases as “David Cameron’s reckless pledge to hold a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty,” “With the right-wing tabloids … psychotically Europhobic,” and ” wanton and quite unnecessary sabotage” are unlikely to win over the hearts or minds of Europhobic readers.
    What you’re saying, in effect, is “If you don’t like the EU, vote Tory.”
    Some people may take the hint.

    I’m sure you’re right about Lord Mandelson, but there are those who can’t help wondering if a local government worker, or a diplomat, could have got away with the way he behaved over his loan from Geoffrey Robinson.
    As for Lord Kinnock, I’m sorry, I didn’t realise he was a mate of yours.
    Glad to hear he’s really OK.
    I hope it’s not just jealousy, but I do have a bit of a problem with people like their lordships.
    I don’t, I like to think, begrudge anyone making big money if they do so by dedication, enterprise, hard work and good luck.
    Provided of course the pay their taxes and don’t trample over too many of their fellow-men in the process.
    But Labour politicians are a bit of a special case. They mostly start out genuinely committed to making life better for the worker and the underdog; but in all too many cases if they prosper, power seems to go to their heads and they metamorphose, after a while, into people who take for granted they’re privileged to enjoy a lifestyle far more lavish than that of the people they once saw themselves as the champions of, at the expense of those very people.
    They sometimes justify this by saying they could have made even more for themselves if they’d gone into banking or stockbroking, and some of them really come to really believe this.
    It doesn’t bother them that the gap between their own emoluments and the wages of those they once sought to help seems to get wider year by year.
    So they end up festooned with honours, and filthy rich to boot.
    Not all that unlike Conservative peers.
    “… from pig to man, and from man to pig again: but already it was impossible to say which was which.”
    On a completely different tack, why hasn’t the Telegraph said a word about Tony and Cheri’s expenses?
    Or have I missed something?

    Brian writes: AFAIK, Neil Kinnock is not “filthy rich”, although no doubt he had (and damn well earned) a significant salary when an EU Commissioner. His position as Chair of the British Council is unpaid.

    I have seen a report that all records of Tony Blair’s expenses and claims have been “shredded” (were they not recorded electronically? surely they must have been?), which is a scandal in itself if true. Cheri was not an MP and is not a peer so the question of her expenses presumably doesn’t arise except in her capacity as wife of a prime minister, which must incur significant expenses; and those are clearly a proper charge on the public purse.

  1. 29 May, 2009

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