A referendum on the EU constitution?

The BBC reports that Tony Blair may be relenting on holding a referendum on the proposed EU constitution.

The Tories have made the obvious move: try to convince the public that the coming European Parliament elections are to be taken as a referendum on the proposed EU constitution. Presumably, people who are against the Government will want to give it a bloody nose, and can’t now do so without being seen to endorse the Tories’ only popular policy. Protesting against the Government by voting non-Labour in the EP elections also has the advantage of not actually bringing the Tories or Lib Dems to power.

The way for Labour to avoid this is to disconnect the EU constitutional issue from the European Parliament elections. This will lead to fewer votes against Labour in these elections, though given that Labour crosses the floor and votes with the Tories in Brussels anyway, it’s hard to see what the advantages are. There is nothing underhand about offering a referendum on this issue, even though it may now serve Blair’s interests to do so. The main argument is that the Government had previously refused a referendum, and would thus be changing its policy.

The substantive reason a referendum was refused was that there was no substantive change to vote on; the constitutional setup was to be the same, in its fundamentals, as it was in 1986 when Thatcher’s Single European Act wrecked de Gaulle’s carefully constructed Europe des patries by undermining the national veto. There have been several rounds of treaty amendment since the SEA, none of which has been submitted to a referendum in the UK.

My take on this is simply that a referendum is now eighteen years overdue, and therefore all the more important. The UK approved by referendum the EEC it was a member of in 1975. In 1986, the earth moved, but the people were denied any chance to withdraw their assent. The post 1986 Europe is not the entity Britain agreed to join.

I must take issue with the sentiments expressed in Jackie Ashley’s column in the Guardian a week or so ago. She claims that constitutional changes are necessary because of the accession of ten new states to the EU (this accession is a constitutional change of massive democratic import in itself – the member states of the EU will have less in common, particularly their GDP per capita, come 1 May). The EU treaties and proposed constitution effectively say “here are the areas in which decisions can be taken at the European level, and here’s the decision-making procedure for decisions in each area”. It’s entirely understandable, and intuitive, that where you have unequal members joining a club (e.g., populations of different sizes), decision-making procedures may need to rethought. I have no problem with that. It strikes me as intellectually extremely dishonest, however, to claim that an increase in size of a club necessitates the transfer of new areas of decision-making competence to the collectivity. Maybe that is not what Jackie Ashley is consciously saying, but it’s certainly what some proponents of the draft constitution are implying.

The other dubious presumption in the Ashley piece is that the UK would be alone in rejecting any EU constitution. The Europhile claim is always “opposition is isolation; the UK will stand alone”. I shall ignore the fact that the UK is often the only public opponent of some European measure, whilst its competitors elsewhere in the EU adopt the far more prudent approach of letting the UK take the flak for policies they know better than to support openly, as this sort of behaviour mainly applies in inter-governmental wrangling, and the proposed constitution implicated democratic choices for whole populations. What Ashley is in effect doing is eliding “opposition” and “isolation”. There’s a presumption here that the UK will be the only country not to ratify an EU constitution, despite the evidence that Sweden and Denmark often veto treaty changes until they can get an opt-out compromising the coherence of the internal market, that the Irish routinely say no, or no and yes, to treaty amendments, and assuming the wafer-thin majority in favour of Maastricht seen in the French referendum holds. Why would any of this sentiment have gone away? Is there any basis whatsoever for assuming that the UK would be alone? And would the UK really want to be part of a club which doesn’t obey its own rule of unanimity about changing the rules?

There is likely to be more than one country where a referendum lost on the EU constitution; this is a healthy and democratic development, and should guide the creation of a constitution which is acceptable to the people who will be governed thereunder.

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