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Thursday, March 06, 2008 

Long-winded post on all things EU and referendums.

The great betrayal has taken place. This was a shaming day for democracy, an act of cowardice on behalf of Gordon Brown, an event that will change Britain forever, and our so-called elected representatives have denied the people their right to a vote on a matter of national importance.

Or so some would have us believe. The whole argument about a referendum on the European Union's Lisbon treaty has been a sham, documented by ignorance and deception on all sides, with every political party outside say UKIP being far from honest about their real motives for supporting the position they adopted. The real sad thing is that such casual contempt for the average person trying to make head or tail of just what the reforming treaty does, is meant to do or whether it should be supported or not is nothing out of the ordinary in this country, a supposed parliamentary democracy which is trying to build a knowledge economy, laughable as it. It isn't however just parliamentarians that have been the key deceivers; if anything, far from it. By far the most nonsense written about the constitution and what it will supposedly do appeared in the right-wing tabloids, as per usual, with ridiculous claims that we'll lose our seat at the UN, that it provides a "blueprint" for a "United States of Europe", with centuries of parliamentary democracy consigned to history. Yep, that's right. According to certain sections of the press, MPs just voted for their own abolition.

Even I'm directly not being straight with you, and I'm also certainly biased. In order to even begin to write about or discuss the treaty properly, you need to read it, and I haven't, nor do I have any intention of doing so. I'm certainly in the majority though; something like 99.99% of the rest of the British population haven't read it either. Those that do can't even begin to understand it: even the BBC's Europe editor Mark Mardell has said that he can't even begin to work out what it means from beginning to end. It's probably indecipherable even to those who drew it up, and who knows, maybe it's even intentional. Regardless of that, it's the treaty that would be put before us, and the time to have made it legible, simple to understand or for an exact, easy list of exactly what it will do and what it won't do has passed. We instead have to rely on everyone other than ourselves to tell us what's in it, yet they haven't done even the slightest work to do so either. According to numerous politicians, newspapers and thinktanks the treaty is roughly 90% the same as the previous constitution, but can we actually rely on any of those to have read it and understood it themselves? And was the previous constitution, itself unreadable, so thoroughly bad, despite its rejection by the French and the Dutch for reasons which weren't necessarily all to do with what that contained either?

As said, I haven't read either, but one of the few facts I am certain of is that there are two main important differences between the constitution and the treaty, and one also which affects us personally vis-a-vis the treaty. Firstly, that the treaty, unlike the constitution, is not legally binding, and secondly that the treaty provides one important detail that wasn't present in the constitution. To what you would expect would be the delight of some in the Conservatives and certainly UKIP, it provides a precise and exact mechanism for leaving the EU, something that is currently completely lacking in any of the treaties that the Lisbon treaty is meant to bring together and reaffirm. Lastly, what would be the biggest benefit of the treaty, the charter of fundamental rights, an extension to the ECHR, was one of the government's red lines, mainly because of the sections on "solidarity" which so offend the business "community" and would ride a coach and horses through the restrictions on trade unions we've had since Thatcher's days.

Update: Rather embarrassingly, as Ken points out in the comments, both the constitution and the treaty contained the secession clause. I apologise for making an honest mistake. It's still the first time that the EU has offered an exact mechanism for leaving the union, and one which is both important and deserves supporting.

The biggest mistake was undeniably Labour offering a referendum in the first place. Despite what some have constantly alluded to, Gordon Brown did not personally ever offer a referendum on the constitution, let alone the Lisbon treaty. As with most other things involving Tony Blair, his decision to have a referendum was a sop to Rupert Murdoch, with it being widely rumoured that Murdoch offered Blair an ultimatum: either you hold a referendum on the constitution, or the Sun and the Times would support the Conservatives in the then fast approaching 2005 general election. Blair hastily agreed, and although he might not have envisaged that he would have been swept out so quickly after his third election win, he was also reasonably safe in the knowledge at the time that it was likely the French would reject the constitution and so negate the need to hold one anyway. With the Conservatives already offering a referendum, again without much chance of actually taking power and needing to hold one, something which would have exposed the party's continuing splits over Europe and left it without the slightest idea what to do, and the Liberal Democrats therefore the odd ones out, they had a little option but to declare they too would have one, even though they again had about as much chance of gaining power as Amy Winehouse has of being left alone by the paparazzi.

This brought us to the situation today, where all the parties are accused of betraying their manifesto promises and therefore misleading the people and treating the public with contempt. This is again of course, a nonsense. No one again seriously expects the voters to actually read each parties' manifesto; that would probably be an act of individual thinking that would deeply offend against the average politician and journalist, and also lead half of those seriously thinking of voting to not bother after the realise how little difference there is between all of them. It's also not as if this is the first time that Labour has directly broken a manifesto promise: there are so many they've either not bothered with or half-heartedly attempted to make up an entire post on its own. 1997's promised electoral reform; they've repeatedly promised to reform the House of Lords; and in 2001's they directly promised not to introduce student top-up fees, so they did the exact opposite.

As stated at the beginning, not a single one of our magnificent parties are being honest with us for their reasons for either changing their minds or sticking with them. The Sun is right in saying Brown won't have a one because he knows he'd lose, but Labour also doesn't want one because besides all the talk of re-engaging and devolution, the party is also still monolithic and a firm believer in the superiority of parliament, rather than in asking the people every five seconds what they want in a plebiscite. The Conservatives are for the most part in favour of a referendum because it means they tap further into popular discontent; it doesn't matter that the party itself has no intention of getting out of Europe altogether, which is what those most in favour of a referendum truly want, including a good proportion of its backbenchers. Not even Cameron's that silly, regardless of his petty decision to move out of the European parliament's main grouping of conservative parties, itself a sop to the headbangers within the ranks. Despite all the opprobrium directed towards them, the Liberal Democrats have actually been the most honest with both themselves and the public. Rather than wanting a referendum on the treaty, which is in reality just a front for one on the EU itself, they've come out and said let's have this debate in full about whether we should stay in or not. This removes all the charades, nonsense and deception surrounding the treaty and asks the adult question: is staying in the EU good for us or not? As they have also argued, this would also be the first time that anyone under 50 had been directly asked for their input on the European Union, since the vote on staying in the EEC back in 1975. Yes, it's true that this is also partly a response to the fear of a referendum on the treaty being lost and that this would be one that would be more winnable, but the consequences of either referendum being lost would be broadly similar.

A no vote here on the treaty would be entirely different to both the French and the Dutch no votes were back in 2005. They were decisive in killing off the treaty precisely because both countries had long been at the centre of the EU and instrumental in its initial conception, as well as both broadly pro-further integration. It's because of our long recalcitrant attitude towards the EU that such a vote resulting in a no would be dismissed in such an easy fashion; rather than being Europe's problem, it would be our problem. Whatever the feelings we should have about that, it's long been established that it's better to be inside the tent pissing out than it is be outside the tent pissing in. Without attempting to reform Europe our way, and by being as strong as possible in attempting to influence the organisation, influence which only comes through respect, we might as well give up entirely and go our separate way. For anyone who believes in small things like the Human Rights Act, which although not connected with the EU would never have happened if it were not for our membership, that's a bitter pill to swallow.

If all this sounds like an argument against a referendum on the treaty, it isn't one. I actually think we should have had and should have one, mainly because despite the politicians, I think it could still be won. We routinely underestimate pro-EU feeling, and also overestimate the influence of the tabloids' incessant propaganda over the institution. It would certainly be easier to win one on continued membership, and that would be a far better question to ask the country to decide upon, but the treaty itself, for all its faults, is to streamline the EU, reform it appropriately for its current expansion and possible further expansion, and also institutes rights which we have long been denied in this country. That was the argument that should have been taken to the country, but the politicians were too pusillanimous to even try and risk the wrath of the Murdoch press, the Telegraph and the Mail. I certainly won't however be losing any sleep over not having one, nor is it a disaster for the country or a betrayal. A far better use of a referendum would be to have one on electoral reform, one that was promised back in 1997, with ironically the elections for the European parliament, which are on proportional representation, being the fairest that are conducted in England, if not in Wales or Scotland which do use a form of PR. Instead, the whole debacle has just been the continuation of the usual biases and manoeuvres which politicians have always used and will always use. It has been ever thus, and will be ever thus, and no amount of huffing and puffing from the press, threats from the Sun to hold Brown to account for it or not will change that.

Related post:
Nosemonkey - Cameron, the Tories’ confusing EU politics, and a chance for reform

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The backbencher debate was very interesting and I think would sway a lot of people that weren't fully entrenched in the idea of a referendum being the thing to do. I think you're spot on in saying that Labour shouldn't have promised a referendum in the first place.

A referendum is a powerful tool for the people and a great responsibility too, and using it as Labour have to suggest the public will have more say in the future in the way they have is lazy and clumsy and will only lead to the public getting cynical.

But, as I said in the post above, I can barely call what parliament did over the last few weeks much better than a referendum for the very reasons Ken Clarke gives against referendums...there wasn't enough time to debate and therefore be fully informed and three line whips meant that no-one would know why the treaty (or at least the referendum) was being voted for or against as specifically as intended.

Sorry did I understand that you claim the treaty differs from the Constitution because

a) it is not legally binding
b) it has a withdrawal clause

Quite obviously you did not read the Constitution either?

In what way is it not legally binding?

The withdrawal clause which is in both the Constitution and the Reform Treaty compromises our own parliament’s sovereignty because it sets out the mechanism by which our parliament may express its sovereignty. To do so it must follow the precise and exact mechanism which is set out in the Treaty which is the constitution for the EU, it is also a clause which can be changed at a later date to alter the mechanism of withdrawal. The very fact that there is a withdrawal clause reflects the change of status between the EU and its members states this Treaty creates.

I presume you're the same Ken debating with Nosemonkey on his post. I'll point you back towards there as I think he puts the arguments you disagree with me on far more succinctly than I could.

I do not think NM has suggested that the Treaty is not legally binding or that the withdrawal clause is not in the Constitution, it is you who have said you are certain of these facts.

For one who says “By far the most nonsense written about the constitution and what it will supposedly do appeared in the right-wing tabloids” you really should be certain of your facts and as you are blogging you really should be prepared to defend yourself not hide behind someone else.

I'm more than prepared to defend myself. It just seemed you were having the exact same argument here with me as you had with Nosemonkey, so there seemed no reason to repeat the same points. The fact that the withdrawal clause was in both the constitution and the treaty was an honest mistake rather than a wilful one, which I'll correct. I don't agree with you that it reduces our sovereignty because it means we can't negotiate to withdraw on our own terms; that appears to be a perverse argument that's rejecting the first attempt to provide such a process just for the sake of it.

I continue to believe that the constitution would have been legally binding while the treaty is not, and indeed the constitution would have reiterated the primacy of EU law above national law, while the treaty does not.

No I am or was having different debate with NM one about the political parties really Conservatives it could of course have appeared similar initially.

I did not for one moment think you had wilfully made the error about the withdrawal clause.

I am afraid on the other point it is not what you believe that is important but the reality of the situation. Can you please explain how the Reform Treaty once ratified will not be legally binding, I am at a loss to understand your reasoning.

I think you will also find that the primacy of EU law above national law, is still in the reform treaty.

I understand and accept your original disclaimer that you have not read the treaty and I also understand that this is really a byword to you main and interesting post. But the seemingly glaring inaccuracies were highlighted by the fact that you commented about inaccuracies from others -UN seat etc. By the by the House of Commons Select Committee agrees with you in the short term, but said in the long run it remains to be seen.

Well, I think we'll have to agree to disagree on that point. The charter of fundamental rights for example is legally binding for everyone else, but we've again supposedly secured an opt-out on that, although whether that's challenged in courts is another matter. My reasoning is that the constitution was a constitution, with all that that entails, while this is a treaty which tidies up the other treaties and enables the EU to proceed far more easily in its enlarged form.

I'm pretty sure the UN seat is going to be non-negotiable; is France for example going to give up its security council seat as well, or is Germany going to give up its campaign on an eventual reformed security council for a permanent seat? I don't think so.

It looks a little to me as if you avoiding the point you said unlike the Constitution the Lisbon Treaty was not legally binding, I suggest that you are wrong, but would be interested to read your arguments that lead you to your conclusions.

In fact the Lisbon Treaty is as legally binding as would have been the Constitution.

There has been a constant argument about the meaning of this treaty Constitution ever since the Constitution was published in fact before, at his first speech at the convention set up by Laeken GISCARD D`ESTAING said “In order to avoid any disagreement over semantics, let us agree now to call it: a "constitutional treaty for Europe".

Initially the British Government refused a referendum on “The Constitution” because they argued it was not a constitution. Now they argue there is no need for a referendum because the Lisbon Treaty is not the Constitution.

The difference between a treaty and a constitution is that A treaty is an exercise of
power by sovereign States. A constitution is itself the repository of sovereign power.

So in fact all EU treaties are the Constitution for the EU, because they set it up, they set out the powers of the EU, the areas of responsibility for the EU etc.
So to argue that the Lisbon Treaty is not the Constitution of the EU is ridiculous and confusing.

Where both the Constitution and now the Lisbon Treaty differ radically from previous treaties is they both set the EU up as an independent entity on the world stage with its own authority flowing from its own constitution. Whereas with the other treaties the EU was not a separate entity but a child - if you wish - of its member states. Further because the EU is a de facto state in its own right it will be, after ratification, eligible to join international organisations such as the Council of Europe and the United Nations, something which is barred to it under its present constitution.

I am afraid that you being “pretty sure” is not quite good enough, you say you do not see France giving up its seat on the UN Council, perhaps you do not, but let us look at it another way. Benita Ferrero-Waldner the EU Commissioner for External Affairs said the EU must take a more communal approach in international institutions such as the UN and the EU should have a permanent seat on the UN Security Council. She said Britian and France would not in her view necessarily have to give up their seats.

Can you envision the other members of the security council allowing Britain perhaps Germany and France and also the EU to hold separate seats on the security council would you? Especially when you consider the EU represents France Britain and Germany and will be forwarding a joint position which of course the Lisbon treaty requires the member states to support.

If they did somehow manage to allow all three or four of us to retain our seats, what if Britain were to disagree on a course of action, we would have a situation where the EU speaking for us would in fact be speaking against our perceived interest.

I found your post interesting in that you were addressing the inaccuracies advanced by different groups, yet it went off the rails when you started to airily dismiss some serious concerns as if they were the product of a fevered mind

There's a big difference between what an EU bureaucrat says would like to happen and what will actually happen. The role of the EU foreign minister has been fairly emasculated from what it was in the constitution afaik, but you can correct me if I'm wrong.

Only time will correct you on that. But you should realise that your position has been adopted by EU supporters since we joined and every time they have been proved wrong, it is the “it will never happen” argument, at least you can claim consistency.

It is it is not just an empty observation or wish from the EU commissioner, the mechanism for producing the outcome she suggested is in the Lisbon Treaty.

I am trying to clarify what the Treaty allows and makes preparation to achieve, this points directly to the direction the EU is taking i.e. to combine foreign policy. Obviously this will not happen overnight, we should really make our decisions based on what is in the treaty and not on conjecture or hope. I for instance do not suppose that the treaty sets in train the mechanism to combine Foreign Policy that is clearly set out in the treaty for all to read, the words used do not leave any room for doubt or dispute on the matter.

The Lisbon treaty states;

The Union shall define and pursue common policies and actions, and shall work for a
high degree of cooperation in all fields of international relations,

(Basically exactly what the Commissioner said! )

"Before undertaking any action on the international scene or entering into any commitment which could affect the Union's interests, each Member State shall consult the others within the European Council or the Council. Member States shall ensure, through the convergence of their actions, that the Union is able to assert its interests and values on the international scene. Member States shall show mutual solidarity.";

(Here we have the clause which prohibits independent action by a member state. And Note the requirement is that the Union is able to assert its interests and values)

"When the Union has defined a position on a subject which is on the United
Nations Security Council agenda, those Member States which sit on the Security
Council shall request that the High Representative be invited to present the
Union's position."

(Here clearly stated is the intention that the EU will seek a seat on the UN Council and will present the Unions position, note! the Unions position and not the positions of its members.)

I think you're reading something into that last quote which isn't there. It's not suggesting that the EU wants a seat, but rather than that the member states on the council will be obliged to invite the high representative to outline the EU's position also. This would likely fall under the current status of non-members of the security council, who can already sit in/be invited on issues that affect them:

"A state that is a member of the UN, but not of the Security Council, may participate in Security Council discussions in matters by which the Council agrees that the country's interests are particularly affected. In recent years, the Council has interpreted this loosely, enabling many countries to take part in its discussions or not depending on how they interpret the validity of the country's interest. Non-members are routinely invited to take part when they are parties to disputes being considered by the Council."

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