The British bayonet
Do not underestimate the coalition’s pledge of a referendum on ceding new powers to the EU
Nov 11th 2010
IN POLITICS, it is the fate of the paranoid not to realise when they are winning. That is the moral of Westminster’s sulky reaction to a European Union Bill, due to be unveiled on November 11th. At its heart lies a European “referendum lock”: a pledge to hold a popular vote on any transfer of further powers from Britain to the European Union.
Conservative MPs who distrust the EU—ie, most of them—seem glumly certain that the referendum lock is a piffling idea, a gimmick that will do little to defend British interests. “Milk and water…a million miles away from what is required,” grumbles Bill Cash, a dogged (indeed relentless) Tory Eurosceptic who chairs the House of Commons European scrutiny committee. In contrast, pro-European members of the government (there are a few) present the referendum lock as a big and reassuring idea, capable of winning back the trust of a public enraged by years of treaty-making by stealth.
Actually, both camps are wrong. Britain’s new referendum lock is a big idea, whose consequences could take years to emerge. It will not make the British public love the EU: that is a lost cause. Instead, assuming that the EU decides it needs hefty new powers in the future (above and beyond current proposals about economic governance, which overwhelmingly concern countries using the single currency), the new lock would probably lead to a multi-speed EU with the British in the slow lane.
Would that be in Britain’s long-term national interests? It might be. The question merits serious debate. Alas, such debate is inaudible amid the din of general scepticism.
Any explanation must begin with an admission: Eurosceptic paranoia is not wholly irrational. Successive British governments have form when it comes to smuggling EU treaties past the public. The latest version of the EU rule book, the Lisbon treaty, is a sorry case in point. In a rash moment, Tony Blair promised Britons a referendum on its first version, the EU constitutional treaty. When French and Dutch voters voted down the constitution in 2005, Mr Blair gratefully scrapped his referendum and signed up to Plan B: chopping the constitution up and stuffing the bits into a new legal casing, like an unappetising Euro-sausage. That resulting creation, the Lisbon treaty, was specifically designed to avoid referendums in perilous places such as Britain. In the end only Ireland held a vote on Lisbon, and even that pro-European country had to vote twice before producing the answer Brussels wanted.
Tories have their own specific reasons to seethe. As opposition leader in 2007, David Cameron offered a “cast-iron guarantee” to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty. Two years later, after the treaty was ratified by all 27 EU members, Mr Cameron dropped his referendum pledge. Provoking some on his party’s right to fury, he explained that—regretfully—Lisbon was no longer a treaty but had become EU law, so his original promise was now moot. Mr Cameron pledged this would “never, ever” happen again: a future Conservative government would hand the British public a referendum lock to which “only they had the key”.
That lock was to be unveiled this week. There were two models for designing it, insiders say. The first—favoured by Whitehall’s silkiest mandarins—involved a “short, elegant formula” pledging a referendum on transfers of significant powers from Westminster to Brussels, with ministers deciding what “significant” meant. The second model involved scouring EU treaties for policy areas in which Britain has an opt-out or veto and methodically listing those which should be changed only by popular vote.
The lock follows this second path. It lists 56 policy areas where a referendum would be needed. A dozen of these come under so-called “ratchet clauses” in the EU rule book, which explicitly leave open the possibility of pooling further powers. Thus Britain would have to hold a referendum to adopt the single currency or to cede its vetoes over EU foreign policy, for instance. An act of Parliament would suffice for Britain to drop some more trifling vetoes, for example over the languages used inside EU institutions. Pledges on Europe need treating with caution, but if you wanted a real referendum lock, this is what it would look like.
This matters, because Britain is not like other EU members. Future British governments would have to be mad to call a referendum on an EU treaty. A straight in-out vote on EU membership could probably be won—just. But a vote on transferring new powers would be suicide: just ask Irish, French or Dutch politicians. A European Union Bill with a functioning referendum lock amounts to a UK Veto Bill. The consequences are stark: either Britain will have to be offered an opt-out from ambitious new treaties, or British voters will vote No and trigger a monumental row.
No, no, no
Why, then, are Eurosceptics so grumpy? Mainly because, like Talleyrand, they think bayonets are useful for everything except sitting on. They want Mr Cameron to use Britain’s vetoes now, not just talk about preserving them. Germany wants a new treaty setting out rules for euro-area governance? Let Britain hold such a new treaty hostage, they say, and demand the return of labour-regulation powers from Brussels: after all, new treaties must be ratified by all 27 members. What about the next EU budget, they add, or treaties admitting new countries?
Partly because he is in coalition with Liberal Democrats, but also because he is a pragmatic chap, Mr Cameron is playing a different game: looking for ways to give EU allies what they want (new euro-area rules for Germany, defence co-operation for France) while seeking support for his red lines, such as EU budget reform or, at the very least, budgetary thrift. If that leaves Britain on one edge of a multi-speed Europe, so be it. That is a big deal—unless, that is, you are too fixated on betrayal to see it.