|Tuesday, 22 January 2008||
The process of ratification of the Lisbon treaty will start this week in the House of Commons. I’m against the treaty because it involves an important constitutional transfer of powers from the European nations to the European institutions, from national democracy to supra-national bureaucracy. I’m in favour of a referendum, not only because it was promised by Labour, Tories and Liberal Democrats at the last general election, but also because it would be the best way to ratify – or reject – a big constitutional change. The people should be consulted when their powers of self-government are being given away.
I was struck yesterday by an observation of the Foreign Secretary, David Miliband. He said: “The reform treaty gives Britain a bigger voice in Europe.” That seems to me to be the opposite of the truth. The reform or Lisbon treaty gives Europe a much bigger voice in Britain. It follows the original constitutional treaty in giving the European institutions that are not democratically accountable important additional powers, while failing to repatriate any powers to the individual European nations.
The original constitutional convention was supposed to reduce the democratic deficit of Europe. The Lisbon treaty has done the opposite, taking powers away from the nations and their electorate. The treaty is a defeat for the idea of a liberal democratic Europe; it is surprising that British Liberal Democrats are among its keenest supporters.
The Government’s handling of the referendum issue has been shameful, because that, too, has been anti-democratic. The advantage of a referendum process is that it imposes a regard for public opinion on European politicians. If they want to win the referendums, they have to negotiate a popular and democratic constitution. In recent British history devolution has been successfully negotiated for Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. In each case the promise of a referendum helped to shape the new constitution. In each case, the new constitution was duly ratified by the referendum.
In the case of the European negotiations the original constitution, which led to the Lisbon treaty, was hijacked by Brussels federalists – contrary to the wishes of the people of Britain, France and the Netherlands. Having hijacked the negotiation, the federalists then found that their idea of a supra-European constitution was deeply unpopular. They could not face any more referendums in Europe because they would lose them. In particular, they could not face a British referendum. The British voters do not want to hand over more powers to the European federalist bureaucracy; they want to get some of them back.
The negotiations for the Lisbon treaty were, therefore, designed from the beginning to get round the need for referendums, except in Ireland, where the Irish constitution requires one. Naturally, this underhand process was designed to avoid the British having a referendum. The Labour Government was a co-conspirator in avoiding the need to fulfil what had become an awkward election pledge. The plot certainly involved Tony Blair, whose last public decision was to agree to the new treaty. He was not acting in order to fulfil his election commitment but in order to evade it. After some initial show of reluctance Gordon Brown accepted this deceitful subterfuge. The British people know they are being manipulated; they resent it.
The ratification of a treaty is a relatively difficult parliamentary process; any treaty will have been negotiated in detail by the Government. The language of a treaty cannot be amended like that of an ordinary Bill. Parliament has to say “yes” or “no” to the treaty as a whole. However, Parliament could impose conditions that might affect or defer the operation of a treaty, or require a referendum as a condition of the ratification process.
Such amendments are likely to be argued in the debate on the Lisbon treaty. One reasonable condition would be to defer ratification until the voters have had an opportunity to decide at a general election. If the Labour party could win an election with ratification of the Lisbon treaty as a manifesto commitment, that would satisfy the requirements of democracy. Of course, Labour might lose, but that would be democratic too.
A referendum would be easier and more straightforward than a general election. It is, after all, something that all three large parties promised at the past general election. The Government cannot honourably avoid it. House of Commons select committees with Labour majorities have found that the Lisbon treaty, on which a referendum is being refused, is really the same as the original constitutional treaty on which a referendum was promised. At present the Conservatives are the only party intending to honour their manifesto commitment.
I do not know what the longer- term impact of ratifying without the promised referendum would be. It would certainly embitter politics. There are many Eurosceptics who feel very angry, who feel betrayed. Voters would become more cynical about politicians, and might regard them all as untrustworthy. The young Eurosceptics are as angry as the older.
In England there is a rising tide of nationalism responding in part to the success of the Scottish nationalists; Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland have had their devolutions, in each case ratified by a referendum. I think the English would claim their own devolution from Europe if they were forced into a centralising treaty and denied their promised referendum.
The Scottish nationalists – and perhaps the Irish – would not want to lose their own devolutionary gains. Alex Salmond was the most successful politician of 2007 – he could hold a Scottish referendum on the Lisbon treaty that could be a knockout challenge to Mr Brown. That would set a good example to the rest of the United Kingdom. Promising a referendum and then refusing it is a most dangerous policy for Mr Brown and the Lib Dem leader, Nick Clegg. It is bad to break one’s word – it is even worse to be found out.
By William Rees-Mogg
William Rees-Mogg has had a distinguished career with The Times and The Sunday Times. He was Deputy Editor of The Sunday Times before becoming Editor of The Times in 1967, a position he held until 1981. He was made a life peer in 1988. Since 1992 he has been a columnist for The Times, writing on a variety of issues. He has also been chairman of the Broadcast Standards Council and British Arts Council.
This article first appeared in the Times.