In June 2005, voters in France and Holland rejected by convincing majorities the draft Constitution for the EU which they were being asked to approve. As the adoption of the Constitution required unanimity among all Member States, this ought to have been the end of the matter. Instead, Europe's political leaders have brushed aside the results of the French and Dutch referendums, although they were amply reflected in opinion polls in many other Member States, showing that their electorates were just as unhappy with the centralising proposals which the proposed Constitution contained. After careful preparation, at the end of June 2007, an EU Summit meeting held in Brussels agreed to bring back onto the agenda almost all of the original Constitution proposals. This time, however, they were encapsulated in a document not called a Constitution but a Treaty. As a result of this sleight of hand, it was deemed not necessary by those at the Summit to get them voted through by the people but only by compliant national assemblies.
Careful scrutiny has shown that only about 10 of the original 250 proposals in the Constitution have been altered. The Treaty is all but the Constitution except that its name has changed, involving the same very substantial transfer of powers from EU Member States to Brussels. The EU is to be given a legal personality, almost like a state, allowing it to sign international agreements binding Member States on everything from foreign policy to crime. This change will be buttressed by the appointment of a High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, whose initiatives and policies we are bound to support "actively and unreservedly". There will be a new EU president, elected with a term of office of sufficient length for him or her to become a much more powerful figure than the present six month office holder. There will no longer be one commissioner per member state while the European Parliament will be given extra powers in about 40 areas. A European public prosecutor will be created with authority to initiate prosecutions, along with more powers for Europol and new EU wide policies to harmonise civil and criminal laws and sentences. The veto has been scrapped in over 60 areas, to be replaced by qualified majority voting in everything from transport, public health, sport, energy, asylum and immigration, to space and science policy and even the annual budget. The EU is now to have an increasing role in economic co-ordination and employment policy. On top of everything else, the new amending treaty contains provisions allowing the EU to pursue further integrationist proposals on its own account without the need for any more international treaty negotiations between the Member States. Nor is it planned that the Inter Governmental Conference to be called later this year to implement the Summit decisions should be given any latitude to change what was decided at Brussels. Its job is to do what it is told and to implement what has already been decided.
Do the majority of people in Britain - or indeed anything but a relatively small minority of our MPs - want to see integrationist changes like this being implemented? There is not the slightest evidence that they do. On the contrary, there is a large majority in the UK in favour of a very different relationship between Britain and all the other countries in Europe. British people want free trade and freedom to live, work and travel elsewhere in Europe. They are all in favour of co-operation with other countries wherever this makes sense. They feel that they have a shared heritage with other European countries and they appreciate our common culture. They do not, however, want to give up their British nationality and powers of self-government. They are not in favour of the development of a European state. They do not want to see our destiny largely decided by unelected functionaries in Brussels instead of our own Members of Parliament. They would much prefer Britain to be able to formulate its own domestic and foreign policies rather than to have them chosen for us by other people.
If very few people in Britain want to see the Treaty implemented, why is it still likely that every effort will be made to drive it through Parliament? The reason is that none of our major political parties represent and articulate the clearly expressed views of most of the electorate on major EU issues. In varying degrees, the Tories, Lib Dems and the Labour Party are all caught up in the same politically correct stance of being unable or unwilling to take a critical attitude, not just in detail but in general, to developments within the EU. The result is that - time after time - they finish up first rubbishing, then tolerating and finally reluctantly supporting integrationist policies even though they do not really believe in them.
A major advantage of holding a referendum on the present constitutional treaty proposals is that it could be used to break this log jam. All three of the major political parties campaigned during the 2005 general election on a commitment to hold a referendum on the Constitution, if it was planned to implement it. As the current proposals are almost exactly the same as the original ones, these commitments ought to be binding. It is in any event clearly highly undemocratic not to consult the people on such major constitutional changes as those now proposed. It is even less excusable to do this when it is clear that the views which most people hold are diametrically opposed to what the government says it intends to push through. Furthermore, there are also important constitutional questions as to whether Parliament has the right to give away its powers without the consent of the electorate. For all these reasons, there is a very strong case for a referendum being held on the Amending Treaty in its own right, quite apart from the wider benefits which might be achieved.
If a referendum was held on the Amending Treaty proposals, there is little doubt what the result would be. They would be rejected, probably by a significant majority. If this happened, the pressure for referendums to be held elsewhere in the EU would be very substantial - which is the main reason why the British government is under such pressure not to allow one to be held in the UK. It is probable that at least some, if not all, of these additional referendums would result in a No vote. If this happened, the current proposals would once more have to be dropped. This, however, is surely what most people in Britain would like to see happen. The result might then be that some Member States would want to integrate themselves more closely together, leaving others to pursue a more independent line. This is an outcome which most people in Britain would welcome. Holding a referendum on the current proposals thus offers a unique opportunity for Britain to start the process of remoulding the EU along lines which both we and many others would much favour, allowing much more choice as to how much integration into a European state each Member State would prefer to see achieved.
If the future developed along these lines, would Britain be isolated and left powerless and friendless in an alien new world? There is no reason whatever to believe that this would happen. As both a major paymaster to the EU as well as a large net importer from other Member States, we would be in a very strong negotiating position to broker a new relationship along lines which would work well for us, without stopping other Member States doing what they thought suited them best. As the fourth largest economy in the world, we would easily be able to take care of our own economic interests. Depending to what extent we decided to opt out of EU jurisdiction, we would be able to mould our own internal policies while retaining our freedom of action when dealing with other countries. We would very probably want to opt out of the Common Agricultural Policy and the Common Fisheries Policy. We might well prefer to conduct our own trade negotiations within the World Trade Organisation framework rather than doing so through the EU. We would very probably like to maintain our own presence at the United Nations. We would be able to retain our legal institutions and our well established system of self government. We would certainly want to run our own Third World aid policy and to reduce our net payments to the EU very substantially from where they are now - and still more from where they are heading for in the future. The objective would not be to cut ourselves off from the rest of Europe, as those wedded to the current style of integrationist policies would have us believe. It would be to regain our independence in a global world within a framework of active co-operation with our neighbours in every policy area which was to our and their mutual advantage.
The most important goal which needs to be achieved is to win a sufficiently large majority of public opinion round to the view that holding a referendum on the constitutional changes now proposed is not a threat but an opportunity. If most people in Britain want to be involved in Europe, but want this to be done on an intergovernmental basis rather than through the evolution of a European state, we need to have an opportunity for this kind of choice to be articulated, voted on and implemented. It cannot be a healthy position for the leadership of all the major political parties to be so far apart from the electorate as they are on the way that the EU is evolving. Nor is it right for Parliament to be asked to vote through proposals on the way in which the EU is to be run which not only the public but most MPs do not appear to think really make sense for Britain. There is an attitude of mind here which urgently needs to be changed, enabling our political leadership to reflect the views of the British people much more accurately than is the case at the moment. Holding a referendum on the current Treaty proposals could provide exactly the political environment in which the new policy options we need could be formulated and expressed. Decisions taken for our future could then clearly and demonstrably reflect what most people in Britain want.