When Margaret Thatcher signed up to the Single European Act, she must
have had no idea it would have come to this. She saw the Act as a means
of entrenching free markets and liberty in a Europe plagued by the rot
of socialism within its borders and the threat of communism on its
doorstep. But her dream of a common market – although significantly
advanced by efforts of Conservative MEPs and others in the past twenty
years – has not been fully realised.
The proof of any treaty is in its interpretation. Mrs Thatcher lost
confidence in the EC project when she witnessed how the old
Franco/German axis used the 1986 Act to advance its cause of political,
rather than economic, integration; and of social protection, rather
than free markets. Governments always come home from European summits
claiming the national interest has been secured, but in reality even
the best legal minds in Europe cannot tell how the European Courts will
interpret the treaties, nor which laws the European Commission will
subsequently propose on the basis of a text agreed by bargaining
politicians in the early hours of the morning.
Twenty years on from signing the Single European Act, and 15 years after Maastricht, we are still only beginning to see what the long-term impact of each treaty has been. Of course, the European constitution (or the Lisbon treaty as they would prefer you to now call it) will sanction some massive immediate transfers of power from the Westminster Parliament to the European institutions. I won’t go into the new institutions or powers now as you can read about those anywhere, and for me, the visible transfers are just the tip of the iceberg. It is the potential this treaty has for future transfer of powers that need not be authorised by our Parliament, let alone the people, that concerns me most.
To understand how the European Union works, it is important to separate the institutions from the processes. After signing the treaty last week, Gordon Brown said any further institutional change will be ruled out "for many years". To make such a comment either underlines his lack of understanding about how the EU works or belies an intention on the Prime Minister’s part to mislead the public. New European treaties do not signify the end-state of the Union’s institutional architecture. The Commission and Courts exploit them to provide the impetus for further institutional upheaval and to act as a catalyst for further integration. After all, every piece of European legislation has to be based on an article in the existing treaties; and it is the daily ratchet effect of European court rulings, new pieces of legislation and other treaties like Prum, which deepen the EU project. Integration in one area creates a ‘spillover effect’ into another, meaning the Commission is always given the excuse to bring forward yet more directives.
It is for this reason that talk of our ‘red lines’ is a smoke screen. Opt-outs and exemptions in Europe of today are considered as mere delays, meaning the UK will sign up to them eventually either inconspicuously through an EU court ruling, or openly by amending the treaty. European leaders have been trying to give Gordon Brown a hand by saying the current treaty is significantly different for Britain than it is for the rest of Europe because our ‘red lines’ have been met. Don’t believe them!
In Europe, the treaties are like tools that can be used to bore the well of European integration, and with the Lisbon treaty, Europe has just acquired not only a digger but a bulldozer too. The new treaty hands powers to Europe and is a treaty that is self-amending for the first time. Currently, the treaties can only be changed through an extremely complicated process of an intergovernmental conference (IGC) and each change must be ratified in each member state, either through referendum or a vote in the Parliament. Under the new treaty, national governments can vote to change the detail of the treaties provided there is unanimity in the Council of Ministers, and even some parts of the treaty can be decided by majority voting, without the need for national parliaments or electors to ratify.
So of course we must campaign for a referendum and when we get one, we must push for a ‘no’. If those goals can be achieved, I believe it will force the EU to finally wake up to its own irrelevance to so many people. There are plenty of people in the European Union who want to see it travel down a freer, looser and more flexible path. They want Europe to be a free market bastion, not a protectionist wall; they want it to embrace globalisation, rather than try to slow it; and most importantly they just want it to get out of their way.
The next few years will be a turning point for the EU. By signing this treaty, Gordon Brown has signalled he wants to continue down the long and winding road of political integration. There is a different vision for Europe already being articulated, and we need only look at the excellent work of groups like Global Vision to see it is both possible and feasible.
If we do not get a referendum, the ratification of this treaty will bring about a high-profile mass transfer of powers in 2009; but for me the biggest concern is that, like in 1986, it will take a generation before we really know how much integration this treaty brought in its wake. That’s why we must get that referendum and win it. When we do, the European Project will be thrown out of keel and our European neighbours will have to consider whether they want an EU that forces integration on the British people or one that remains flexible enough to tackle the challenges of globalisation. As these issues are debated, after a generation of integration, we may finally have a chance to build an EU that is responsive to the aspirations of its peoples.