I stood up in support of Cameron and Hague when they launched their new post-Lisbon-Treaty policy. A number of Eurosceptics criticised me for that at the time; other assumed I was just being a good egg so as not to create splits in the run-up to the General Election. Actually, I still believe that the policy as specified then was fine. The problem wasn’t the policy; it was the will to enact it, which has been (perhaps predictably, as my critics note) totally lacking.
This government has so far been worse than Tony Blair’s in regards to Europe: he at least kept us out of the euro; the Coalition has evaded the best opportunity Britain has ever had to secure a re-negotiation on terms favourable to us, namely the revision to the Treaty to create a fiscal union necessitated by the Eurozone crisis. Since this was in no way necessitated by the Coalition with the Lib Dems (the Coalition agreement did not commit us to not seeking renegotiation under any circumstances, there was no chance of the Lib Dem leadership walking if we had sought to renegotiate, and if they had done so, precipitating a General Election over Europe, over 80% of the General Public would have supported renegotiation (that was the figure opposing the Lisbon Treaty) and we would (under those circumstances) have secured a significant electoral dividend) – since it is manifestly not true that renegotiation was prevented by the Coalition agreement, the only possible conclusion is that Cameron and Hague did not want to renegotiate, that their claims to believe in renegotiation (their claims to be Eurosceptics) were – and probably always had been – a fabrication to placate the mainstream of the Party.
In supposed compensation for refusing to renegotiate – for breaking undertakings given repeatedly over many years – the government has brought forward the European Union Bill 2010. This is obviously a totally inadequate measure, a distraction from the key issue (which is still on the table): that we should use the opportunity of the revisions to the Treaty currently underway to renegotiate Britain’s position. But, that point aside (and that itself could well be a good enough reason for rejecting the Bill – to say: “My commitment to resolve the European Question will not be bought for this mess of pottage”), I see two more specific problems with the measure.
First, this is not in the least what I meant to support when I favoured a Sovereignty Act. This measure requires referendums under a range of circumstances. But I’m not in favour of referendums at all, and the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament is blatantly reduced, not increased, by mandating referendums. The concept that plebiscites are necessary to deliver constitutional changes is some kind of nationalist/Democrat concept – the very opposite of traditional Conservatism. The objection was that the European Union encroached upon the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament, not that it somehow encroached upon the “sovereignty of the People of Britain”.
I’ll convince some of you with that, but more of you will prefer my second objection. That is that the Bill (Section 3.1) allows ministers to by-pass the requirement for a referendum if the measures are not “significant”. But we have a clear recent measure and precedent of what government ministers do and do not consider a significant Treaty change. At the 20 December 2010 House of Commons debate on the European Council meeting, David Cameron stated that the revision to the Treaty he has agreed is a “very limited Treaty change”. (In addition, he contended that it did not affect the United Kingdom (which might be debated), but here I focus purely on his claim that this is a “very limited Treaty change”.) I think it should be clear that a “very limited Treaty change” would fall squarely within the provisions of Section 3.1 of the European Union Bill and so not require a referendum.
But this “very limited Treaty change” establishes a fiscal union within the Eurozone (and for non-Eurozone members intending to join the euro in due course). It permits Eurozone members to take responsibility for each other’s debts, pooling the debt obligations of the Eurozone. It is a change almost as significant as (indeed, perhaps arguably more significant than) the introduction of the euro itself.
If changing the Treaty to achieving material pooling of fiscal sovereignty across the Eurozone counts as a “very limited Treaty change” it is hard to conceive of any measure that would count as “significant” and hence trigger a referendum. Given the precedent established by the Prime Minister’s statements concerning what the government does and does not consider a significant change to the Treaty, it must be considered highly doubtful whether the referendum provisions of the European Union Bill 2010 would ever be triggered by ministers themselves – leaving us the messy business of referendum being decided, against ministers’ will, by the courts – hardly (again) a mechanism for establishing the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament.
So, for these three reasons – that it is a transparent distraction from the real issue of the need to renegotiate using the opportunity before us; that it damages the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament rather than enhancing it; and that the ministerial discretion offered to evade a referendum if a measure is not significant is established, by recent clear precedent, to be so wide-ranging as to make the triggering of a referendum almost inconceivable – I recommend voting the bill down or introducing some wrecking amendment.
Some readers will sigh: “Can’t the Conservatives ever stop banging on about Europe?” Yes we can – when it is resolved! I don’t want to write about Europe. I am astonished still to be doing so in terms of opposing Party policy after so many years. The Conservatives should have resolved this in the mid-1990s, and we thought we had a settled position favouring renegotiation that the whole Party could support. There is no need for us to be banging on about Europe at all. This is an entirely avoidable mess of the leadership’s own making.