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ratified the treaty and formally lodged the ratification instrument with Rome: it’s not a law and can’t simply be repealed or otherwise reversed, so a referendum would probably have no legal effect although its political impact could be devastating.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.
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.