Monday, October 29, 2007

The European Treaty - what should happen next?

One of the things that Gordon Brown's delay of the next General Election to 2009 (probably) has meant is that the Conservative position on the European Treaty has become significantly more complicated. Presently, their position is admirably clear: they support a referendum, in which they would oppose the ratification of the Treaty. Hard to pick a hole in that really. But suppose the Treaty does not go to a referendum, but is passed through Parliament by Labour and Lib Dem enthusiasts. This would be in early 2008, and the Bill would go through to the House of Lords, where surely an amendment allowing a referendum would be returned to the Commons.
Intriguingly, of course, though the Commons can force a Bill through the Lords, it is more or less convention nowadays for this to happen only where the Commons are upholding a manifesto pledge of the Government. In this case, it would be argued, the Government are in fact reneging on a manifesto committment, and it would be the Lords upholding it - a tricky case to use the Parliament Act on. Fun and games aplenty in store for us here I suspect.
Lets imagine, however, that by a combination of low cunning and dirty politics, the Bill is passed and Royal Assent is given. A year later the Election is called and the Tories come into Government. They are faced with a fait accompli. In a discussion at the Ministry of Truth, Bob Piper says that they should honour their current committment and call a referendum on the Treaty - and repudiate it if that is what the referendum decrees. He gives, as an example, the referendum called by Harold Wilson in 1975 on the entry into the European Union.
I think this is either based on a misunderstanding of the issue at hand or, more likely, mischief-making aimed at painting the Tories into a corner. Wilson's referendum was 'In or Out'. A straightforward question with clear actions following. Had the No vote won, Britain would (probably) have left the European Union. In the current situation, unless the referendum is also an 'In or Out' question, the scope for Britain in the light of a No vote is very unclear. It is possible (and in this case desirable) to attempt to alter the rules of a club of which one is a member before the rules are introduced. It is not possible to repudiate those rules a year after they have been unanimously endorsed - unless you want to leave the club altogether. I do rather, but suspect that this isn't yet a majority opinion. So, Hague and Cameron are right to act with extreme caution on what the Tories future tactics will be with regard to the Treaty - it's all too easy to sign up to a policy that would be entirely impossible by the time of the next Election.
Depressingly, I find that I have written a piece that could be by Timothy Garton Ash. I'm quite profoundly Eurosceptic, veering towards the Worstallite position. At some point there will have to be a reckoning. At some point public opinion will tip to the point where current federalism is no longer sustainable. And the massive cynicism of the European political hierarchy over the Constitution may well be the beginning of that movement. I hope so. But it would be a very bad thing for both the Conservative Party and, the pretty valid criticisms of the DK notwithstanding, the wider Eurosceptic movement in Britain if the Tories were to go to the mattresses over an impossible principle.

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