OK, so I’m being politically and legally correct, and am referring to the treaty that the EU Intergovernmental Conference (IGC) today is going to attempt to reach agreement on as a reform treaty, not a constitution. My aim here is not to re-hash the debate as to whether the treaty is substantially the same or not as the EU Constitution that was rejected in referendums (technically, referenda if you know your Latin) in France and the Netherlands. This is a semantic distinction: whether or not you call the proposed treaty constitutional or not, it certainly relates to matters that are constitutional in nature, i.e. which affect the sovereignty, and legislative and executive powers, of the UK.
If the UK did have a written constitution, a referendum on the Treaty might well be mandatory, as it is in Ireland. It is only the Labour government’s so-called ‘red lines’, which (disputedly) guarantee the UK’s right to opt out of EU legislation and control in four fundamental areas, that enable the government to claim that the new treaty is not the same as the rejected Constitution and that therefore it is not to be held to its 2005 election-manifesto promise to hold a referendum on it. Clearly, the politics is paramount: if Mr Brown did refer to it as a constitutional treaty, he’d be forced to concede a referendum; therefore, because he doesn’t want a referendum, it’s ‘not a constitutional treaty’.
So why doesn’t Prime Minister Gordon Brown (or GB as I insist on calling him) want a referendum? If we can discount his alleged reason for ‘opting out’ of one – as indicated above – the main reasons appear to be as follows:
- He’s afraid of losing. GB has already demonstrated his aversion to losing votes by ducking out of an autumn general election when the polls started to suggest he might not win an outright majority. (See previous post.)
- It would turn into a referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU in general. The former leader of the Liberal Democratic Party, Menzies (Ming) Campbell, correctly identified the fact that a referendum on the Treaty would be rolled up into a more general debate about the direction in which the EU is heading and Britain’s aims in remaining, or not remaining, a member. The secret fear of the centre-left parties (Labour and the Lib Dems) is doubtless that a ‘no’ vote (a not unlikely outcome) would be seen by many as a vote to leave the EU. This would once again open up an argument that these parties would like to view as definitively settled; hence, Ming Campbell’s honesty in wanting to use a referendum to in fact settle it once and for all. Perhaps he calculated that, if the British people were confronted by the bigger choice of whether to keep the UK in the EU or to leave the EU, they would be swayed in favour of the former option and would then back the ongoing process of further integration with the EU.
David Cameron, the leader of the opposition Conservative Party, who is now calling for a referendum, is doubtless doing so also on the basis of a political calculation. He has clearly worked out that the government will resist these calls and that the Treaty will probably be voted through in parliament. If this happens, Cameron can claim that the Tories are the one party that has held the Labour Party to account over its manifesto pledge and called for a referendum specifically on the Treaty, and can therefore reap the dividend in terms of electoral support. If parliament were to reject the Treaty (highly unlikely, as this would require a sizeable Labour rebellion, the abstention – at the very least – of the Lib Dems, and the support of the Scottish and Welsh Nationalists: highly problematic, as we shall see), this would also provide an enormous boost to Cameron’s standing in the political media and the opinion polls.
On either outcome, Cameron is obviously calculating that the Tories will reap the benefits of popular support for a referendum. However, if they were subsequently elected into power at the next election, they might not be obliged to hold a referendum on the Treaty because, by that stage, it could already have been operating for two years, and a) the need for a referendum might no longer be perceived to be that great (if, in fact, no significant conflicts between EU decisions and the interests of the UK as interpreted by the government had arisen); and b) it could be presented as no longer practical; for instance, if it required a complicated process of re-negotiating Britain’s participation in the Treaty and its red lines. The Tories could then say that we just had to make the best of a bad job and that they would unflinchingly defend ‘British interests’ (you can hear the language already) within the previously agreed framework. And if they were pressured into holding a referendum, they could limit it to the Treaty rather than generalising it to EU membership per se. Which brings me to another benefit this whole affair has had for Cameron: it has enabled him to finally put to bed the damaging disputes between Europhiles and Eurosceptics within his party.
3) A referendum would open out a new front in the so-called English Question: the disproportionate role of Scottish and Welsh electors and political representatives in deciding matters affecting England. This is because the voters in Scotland and Wales are much more likely to support the Treaty, whereas the most probable result in England is a rejection. The additional ‘yes’ votes in Scotland and Wales (and in Northern Ireland, let’s not forget) could easily sway the result in favour of the Treaty. The main political parties – especially GB and the Labour Party – want to keep this dimension of the debate under wraps because of the huge issues that are at stake: they can’t concede that any referendum might in effect be two referenda [sorry, I’m a pedant] – one in England and one for the countries enjoying devolved government. If they conceded this fact, or if it was even aired in the media without their acknowledging it, this would make the existence of this post-devolution electoral anomaly in the House of Commons (where it is of course known as the West Lothian Question) even more glaring. And let’s not forget that in a House of Commons vote on the Treaty, it could well be the more Europhile Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish MPs who would ensure that the Treaty is ratified. So we are once again confronted with a political debate carried out in GB Double-speak: where defence of perceived English concerns and interests cannot be acknowledged as such but can be articulated only in terms of ‘British interests’ and ‘Britain’s red lines’. Because in reality, this is only an English debate. Support for the Treaty and for greater integration with the EU is virtually a given in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, and is certainly backed by the nationalist parties (see below). People in those countries aren’t nearly as bothered about the government’s red lines. People in England would like a vote on them all the same, thank you very much.
4) The government has its own domestic constitutional agenda, which it doesn’t want to be disrupted. Lest we forget, there is an ongoing UK constitutional-reform review headed up by Justice Minister Jack Straw. The government doesn’t want this to be rolled up into a broader constitutional debate by acknowledging that the EU Treaty has any constitutional implications. Given that a referendum would be bound to stir up this debate, and particularly the thorny English Question, best not admit that the Treaty is constitutional in its effects. The aim is clearly to get the discussion on the Treaty out of the way with a neat, quick parliamentary process of debate, review and whipped vote. Then the UK constitutional issues can be dealt with entirely separately. Not that any of us can or should pre-judge the proposals that Jack Straw and GB will come out with; but all the signs from what they’ve said and, more especially, not said, are that they are not going to offer any solution to the English or West Lothian Questions that is at all satisfactory to the majority of English people who take an active interest in democracy.
So much for GB’s objections to a referendum. Who else opposes it? The Scottish and Welsh nationalists, of course. At first sight, this could seem counter-intuitive in that some of the powers that could be transferred to the EU (and at least one of the government’s red lines that relate to those powers) are devolved ones: justice and home affairs (JHA) (to some extent, also, tax and benefits, as these are linked to the level set in England). The two other red lines involve retained powers: foreign affairs and security, and human rights. One might think, then, that on principle the Scottish and Welsh nationalists would back a referendum, as it would give the people of Scotland and Wales the chance to express their views on areas over which they currently have a direct democratic say (the devolved matters) as well as to make their opinions known on the retained, UK-wide matters.
This would in fact be the more principled position but is not one the nationalists have adopted. Why is this? In the short term, there could be two negative consequences for them if a referendum were held:
They make a similar calculation to GB: they fear they could lose a referendum. What is more, having endorsed a referendum and then lost it primarily because of English votes, this would be a huge loss of prestige and could lead to an erosion of their support.
This would involve them supporting and abiding by a UK-wide political process and democratic decision, which also affects devolved powers. This runs counter to the devolved power they have already achieved and their objective of gaining even more independence from Westminster.
In the long-term, the nationalist parties also have a strategy of supporting further integration of the UK with the EU, and further transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels, because this weakens the dependency of Scotland and Wales on UK institutions and government, and makes it more possible for Scotland and Wales to negotiate their own arrangements and status within the EU independently of Westminster. The nationalists clearly believe that this strategy is best served in the present by supporting the proposed Reform Treaty – preferably without but if necessary with the red lines – and, in exchange for their co-operation, trying to leverage the best deal possible for their countries in pursuit of their ultimate objective of full independence.
In this way, and not for the first time, the Labour government, while claiming to support legislation that is in the interests of the whole of the UK (i.e. the Treaty) and avoiding an argument that could destabilise the Union (the one between England, Scotland and Wales, that is), is in fact furthering the objectives of those who want to see the complete break up of the Union. In the first instance, this is the Scottish and Welsh nationalists. But this could also advance the cause of English nationalism (a cause to which I am sympathetic, by the way), because if England is denied a referendum on a Treaty that it might well have rejected, this will only stir up further resentment at the disproportionate influence of Scottish and Welsh politicians in pushing through the Treaty.
So now we have the unedifying spectacle of Scottish and Welsh nationalists lending their support to the detested UK government over a Treaty entered into by that government on their behalf, and which could diminish some of the devolved powers they’ve only just secured, because their support promotes their pursuit of perceived national self-interest.
Here’s what the SNP’s press release about the first IGC conference in July stated:
“Alyn Smith today welcomed the launch of the Inter-Governmental Conference on the proposed EU reform treaty. . . .
“Commenting on the launch Mr Smith said:
‘While welcoming the re-launch of this EU reform process as a way of making an EU of 27 member states work more efficiently and effectively, it is essential that those involved in the negotiations recognise that they must come forward with a text that truly reflects the aspirations and concerns of all of the EU’s peoples, including Scotland'”.
Very supportive of the UK government, I thought.
And here’s the Welsh nationalist party Plaid Cymru’s statement of their Europe policy:
“Plaid Cymru strongly supports the creation of a more democratic European Union with a written constitution and a Charter of Fundamental Rights incorporated in the Treaty. . . .
“Plaid Cymru will:
- Push for the right of direct appeal to the European Court, for example, as this could be highly relevant in challenging the United Kingdom’s refusal to apply the additionality principle to European funding.
- Campaign for Wales to achieve full membership as a member-state of the EU.
- Review the work of the Assembly’s European Committee with a view to improving its capacity to predict the effects of EU legislation and to scrutinise Assembly legislation arising from it.
- Develop a multifunctional centre to act for Wales in Brussels. The Government of Wales Representation would be housed within this ‘embassy’, as would representatives of other relevant organisations”.
No wonder Plaid Cymru backs the (strictly non-constitutional, you understand) Treaty! And by the way, the technical-sounding ‘additionality’ principle, which appears so harmless, is the one whereby the government doesn’t use money from the EU Structural Funds spent in Wales to merely replace funding it would otherwise have taken from UK resources: that money should be additional to earmarked UK funding. So this is a sort of Barnett Formula+: the Barnett Formula being the one whereby the people of Scotland and Wales are already guaranteed a higher proportion of public expenditure per capita than the people of England. Sounds like the extra powers the European Court may get under the Treaty could come in handy, then!
What an alliance of the Great and the Not-So-Good is lined up against a referendum, then – and even those who back it (the Tories) are making a cynical calculation that there probably won’t be one! But England (yes, England, not Britain) should be allowed a referendum. It’s our democratic right. The UK parliament doesn’t adequately represent the interests of England in this matter, and a parliamentary vote in favour of the Treaty will not reflect the will of the English people. More damage to the Union can be the only consequence.
We deserve better. And who knows, England might even vote in favour of the Treaty – just as England might even have given GB the benefit of the doubt in a general election before he chickened out.
Let the Scottish and Welsh forge self-interested closer ties with the EU if they want to. But it’s also our right in England to decide our own future within Europe.