Millions who watched the European constitutional treaty expire on the barricades of Paris a year ago are in for a surprise. This week, after a year’s pause for reflection, the European Union’s leaders will keep the remains on life support. Once next year’s French and Dutch elections are over, the EU, under the chairmanship of Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, will try to breathe new life into the project.
More than half the member states have already ratified the constitution. Others, such as the Czechs and Poles, with sceptical governments, will take some persuading that it is worth saving. Neither the French nor Dutch governments could face another referendum. So the options range from coming back to the same text, but calling it something else, to picking out only those bits that are needed for the enlarged EU to work.
It never was a constitution and I kick myself, as an adviser at the time of Tony Blair, UK prime minister, for not realising that that piece of hubris would be the treaty’s undoing. The pick and mix solution has a lot to commend it. It would, in principle, concentrate on those things that are practically necessary such as: simpler voting rules; a smaller Commission, but one that does not allow a large member state such as Britain to be excluded (as may happen under the existing rules); a single person, rather than the present two, to represent the EU’s foreign policy interests.
The only snag is that 25 governments have got to agree. Ernest Bevin, Britain’s postwar foreign secretary, was right. Who knows what Trojan horses will jump out once Pandora’s box is opened? British business would find it hard to support a treaty that still included the charter of fundamental rights. They fear it would undermine Britain’s liberal labour market. For Germany and France that same charter is holy writ. The Germans even talk of adding to the treaty a new political text on “social Europe”. The issue of majority voting may well be reopened. Britain’s interest actually lies in more majority voting on issues affecting crime and justice but would John Reid, the current home secretary, be more persuaded of that than David Blunkett was two years ago? Would Britain have to argue against majority voting for tax issues all over again?
Could we produce agreement on a much shorter, simpler text that was clearly not a constitution, did not require governments such as the French, Dutch and British to put the outcome to a referendum and, instead, allowed us to revert to the traditional route of parliamentary ratification?
The British government has got to be hard-headed. The issues would be tricky enough to handle if Mr Blair were in his heyday and able to carry a lukewarm party, parliament and country with him. But he is approaching the end of his premiership. By the time the French and Dutch elections are over, all British eyes will be on the next prime minister. By 2008, when a new treaty should be agreed, Britain will be only a year away from a likely general election. Will whoever succeeds Mr Blair want to place that electoral albatross around his neck?
However minimal a new treaty, any self-respecting Conservative opposition is bound to demand a referendum. Much of the press will support the call. Could the prime minister resist it? Mr Blair found it impossible to do so in the run-up to the European elections in 2004. It would be even harder to do so in the run-up to a general election. The thought of Gordon Brown, chancellor of the exchequer and Mr Blair’s likely successor, leading a referendum campaign in support of any European treaty requires a leap of hope and imagination.
If the government did refuse a referendum how easy would it be to secure ratification in the House of Commons? If the Conservatives are snapping at Labour’s heels, many backbench Labour MPs will not want to vote on a controversial EU issue. In 1997, Mr Blair was pretty cautious in his pro-Europeanism, even when he had the Conservatives on the run. By 2008, it is Labour who are more likely to be on the back foot. It would be hard for Labour to portray the Conservatives as dangerous anti-Europeans if the Tory rallying cry was: let the people decide.
The last thing pro-Europeans want to see is Europe become, once again, the battleground between the parties at a time when the Conservative leadership may, for the first time since 1997, be feeling its way towards an EU policy that would be sustainable in government. The EU constitution has been put on hold for the sake of the French and Dutch elections. The EU will not grind to a halt if it has to be put on hold for Britain’s sake as well, so that the decisions that undoubtedly do need to be taken about Europe’s future can be taken by a government with a fresh mandate in 2009.
Sir Stephen Wall was Tony Blair’s adviser on the European Union from 2000-2004; he is now vice-chairman of Business for New Europe
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