All those interested in EU affairs will remember the stupefaction in Europhile circles when the French and the Dutch voted by significant majorities - 52% to 48% in the French case and an even more convincing 56% to 44% in Holland - to reject the proposed EU Constitution in their referendums in June 2005. It was widely held on all sides that, for the Constitution to have legitimacy it needed to secure democratic endorsement. Evidently, it did not receive it. As there was a requirement for all countries in the EU to agree to the new Constitution before it could be adopted, it was crystal clear, once the proposed text had been rejected by the French and the Dutch, that the Constitution ought to have been dead. This is what democracy is about. This is not, however, what happened. Instead, European leaders ignored the democratic decisions which had been taken and have connived ever since to foist the Constitution proposals on the EU in flagrant disregard of popular dissent.
Instead of paying attention to the evident lack of support for what they were doing, all further referendums were cancelled, other than one in Luxembourg which receives the biggest subsidies per head in the EU despite having the highest living standards. Instead, the legislatures in 18 countries ratified the text of the Constitution. This happened despite the fact that. in almost all cases popular opinion was against them doing so, at least without democratic consent. Worse still, in Germany's case, its own constitution was ignored, since it was far from clear that it allowed the transfer of powers to the EU which the new proposed dispensation entailed.. The only other country which had a referendum was Spain - another major net beneficiary of EU largesse - where a majority in favour of the Constitution was achieved, albeit on an unexpectedly small turn out.
The fact that only 18 out of 25 member countries had ratified the proposed EU Constitution clearly left the EU with a serious dilemma if their electorates were to be ignored and further integration was to proceed despite the fact that it had no democratic legitimacy. Ireland, Sweden and Denmark were obliged to hold referendums for domestic legal reasons if the Constitution were to be adopted. Strong commitments had been given in other countries, particularly Britain and Poland, that there would be no further transfer of sovereignty to the EU without a referendum to show that moves in this direction had popular support. It was extremely unlikely that all these tests of public opinion would support the new Constitution, not least in Britain. If new constitutional arrangements for the EU were going to be established, therefore, it was evident that further steps would have to be taken to bypass the democratic road blocks which were clearly in place.
The solution which has been reached by the Commission and EU leaders to resolve this problem, potentially foisting the unwanted Constitution on the whole of the EU, has been to split up its proposals into a number of parts. Much of the rejected Constitution did not in fact involve anything new. It simply codified and endorsed steps which have already been taken - sometimes without proper authority ever having been available - but without anything which did not already exist being involved. The establishment of an EU foreign service is a typical example. Of the remainder, some of the changes proposed could be hived off to be dealt with as administrative matters, thus enabling them to proceed by simply bypassing any extra authority for them being sought. Further steps to develop the EU Rapid Reaction Force fall into this category. Some other matters, such as making the EU flag and anthem official, could be left out, as whether they were included or not would make little if any difference. This then left a relatively small number of key changes, which even those determined to push ahead with alteration at all costs to the way the EU was run, recognised would have to be legitimised. These included the establishment of an EU Foreign Minister, having an EU President whose term of office would be considerably longer than six months and changes to voting and veto rights, particularly on foreign and policing policy. There could also be an attempt to slip the Charter of Human Rights through by enabling sufficient reference to it to enable the EU Court of Justice to rule that it can be treated as being justiciable.
The next stage will be a two pronged approach. All those Member States which have already ratified the Constitution will be told that the new arrangements under consideration are so similar to those that they have already agreed that no further action is required in their cases to legitimise them. The electorates in all the Member States which have not yet endorsed the Constitution - in all cases because of legal or political commitments to put the matter to a referendum, which their political leaders think is likely, from their perspective, to produce the wrong result - will be fed a very different story. They will be told that there is no Constitution planned for the EU. Instead, there will be a very minor tidying up treaty, which is of much too little significance to warrant a referendum being held. In fact, the treaty will comprise all the vital elements of the Constitution which cannot be implemented by other means. The Commission and all the EU leaders who support this being done will then effectively have their Constitution in place without any electoral endorsement at all except for the two favourable referendums in Spain and Luxembourg. The electorates in all the other 23 EU Member States will have the Constitution imposed upon them despite clear evidence from the polls that a high proportion of them have significant majorities against any such a development taking place.
What are the consequences likely to be of this flagrant disregard of electoral wishes? They may well turn out to be very serious. The way this whole matter has been dealt with has clearly further alienated large sections of the population in all Member States about the way the EU is run. There may well be a case for trying to change the way EU Member States work together but as the current proposals are clearly not what most people want, it flies in the face of all democratic principles that they should then be implemented. In this connection, it is surely significant that the polls show that even those who are in favour of the Constitution think that the electorate should be consulted on its implementation and that there should be no further ceding of sovereignty to the EU without a referendum. In Britain, opinion polls show that a massive 83% of the electorate share this view. Because of the process being adopted, if all the essential elements of the Constitution are implemented as now seems likely, it is now clearly devoid of any genuine legitimacy. This is an extremely dangerous situation for any organisation. It may well, for example, affect the future EU flagship policies, such as the creation of the Single Currency. As the strains of maintaining the euro on its divergent economies mount, it is by no means impossible that lack of commitment to the way the EU is run may contribute to a relatively early break up of the eurozone.
In Britain, the way the Constitution is being handled is in many respects particularly problematic. The British electorate is less enthusiastic about EU membership than almost everybody else. The UK is particularly exercised about ceding further powers to Brussels as is shown by the very high proportion of people in this country who think that they should be allowed a referendum before there is any more loss of sovereignty. Partly because all British politicians were aware of how strong this sentiment is, unequivocal commitments were given about a referendum being held before any further transfer of powers to Brussels took place. No doubt, the changes to be made in the treaty which we are now told will be put before the British Parliament later this year will be dressed up as being of minimal consequence. This, however, is always the way the EU has operated. Major changes in political power and democratic accountability are slid through bit by bit, portrayed in each case as being of relative insignificance. The cumulative effect, however, has been massive and the reality is that the currently proposed treaty changes are not insignificant. The consequences are going to be of major impact, particularly on our capacity to determine our foreign policy, on the way we are policed and on the balance of power between national legislatures and Brussels. If the Charter of Human Rights gets included, the impact will be even greater. We are not looking at minor adjustments although, even if we were, implementing them without democratic consent would be in breach of the solemn commitments not to do this which have repeatedly been given. In front of us are major changes which the vast majority of the British people do not want to see happening.
Where we might expect there to be concerted opposition to the current proposals is in Parliament. MPs, apart from anything else, have got even more to lose than everyone else as more and more power seeps away to Brussels, leaving the House of Commons more and more as a decorous but relatively powerless talking shop. Unfortunately, it looks unlikely that help will be at hand. Will the Labour Party resist being whipped behind the leadership? The Liberal Democrats, although they have supported a referendum being held in the past, cannot be relied on to vote against the treaty when the time comes. The Conservative Party, though internally split, may vote against it and for a referendum for tactical reasons, but safe in the knowledge that they will probably be defeated. There is little hope of really strong and principled opposition coming from this quarter. Yet again, therefore, on the critical issue of ceding more sovereignty, there is a pressing danger that Parliament will provide no effective leadership in opposing what is being foisted upon us. We would then be dragged further into the morass of lack of confidence in our political leaders which bedevils the whole of EU politics. The bigger the gap between what our political leaders do and what the electorate wants, the worse the strains become, the more support for the whole political process shrivels and the more disillusioned everyone becomes. Especially if there is no referendum, we are going to pay a heavy and uncalled for price both for allowing the Constitution to proceed and for the compliant and unresisting way in which Parliament will have permitted it to be pushed through.