The negotiation of the Lisbon Treaty has been one of the most shameful episodes in the history of the present Government, and the ratification has been even more disgraceful.
The Government gave a clear pledge in its 2005 General Election manifesto that there would be a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty. Referendums were in fact held in the other member states of the European Union. The Spanish referendum endorsed the Treaty, but the French and Netherlands referendums rejected it.
No referendum was held in the United Kingdom, perhaps because the Government had hoped that the British would be influenced by the expected 'yes' votes of the French and Dutch electorates.
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The Constitutional Treaty was then renegotiated. The Lisbon Treaty, which emerged, contained well over 90% of the same material. It was not a new Treaty, but a redrafting of the Constitutional Treaty in a deliberately more obscure form. It did not advance the democratisation or subsidiarity which were called for in the Laeken Declaration. It took further the bureaucratic centralisation of Europe, to which most British opinion has been opposed.
The Government decided to ratify the Lisbon Treaty by a Parliamentary process, without a referendum.
This was defended on the spurious grounds that the Lisbon Treaty was substantially different from the Constitutional Treaty. It is not. It was also defended on the argument that Parliament is better qualified to handle complex material than the electorate. In general it was argued that Britain is a parliamentary democracy. However, there had been referendums on similar constitutional issues, such as devolution to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Lisbon was a similar transfer of powers of the United Kingdom Parliament to the European system, which is more bureaucratic than democratic.
In any case, the Government had conceded the principle of a referendum, and of the capacity of the electorate to form a proper judgment, when the referendum was adopted in the Labour Party manifesto.
Lisbon Treaty: another broken promise
However, the referendum has been refused, and the Bill to ratify the Lisbon Treaty is trundling through Parliament. Again the Government made a promise, and again the promise is being broken. The promise was that there would be a prolonged process of line by line scrutiny in the House of Commons. That would have involved detailed examination of the text of the Bill, with, no doubt, debate on many amendments. This is not happening. Line by line scrutiny might have taken 20 days of parliamentary time.
That will not now be available. The proposed amount of time is likely to come to 12 days, not 20. Worse than that, the procedure followed is not one of line by line scrutiny, but of general debate, in which Ministers take up a lot of time with windbag speeches. Line by line scrutiny is only given about half the available time, or about a quarter of the time that would be needed to fulfil the Government's pledge.
Key elements of the Lisbon Treaty
The position remains as bad as ever. The Lisbon Treaty does destroy some 40 to 60 veto rights of the individual nations. It does create the European Union as a legal entity, with the equivalent of Foreign Secretary and, rather oddly, two Presidents. It does transfer major powers from the nations to Brussels and it does not transfer a single power back to the nations. It moves Europe towards a federal bureaucracy, modelled on the structure of Bismarck's constitution for the victorious Prussian Empire after 1870.
My own view is that this structure will eventually collapse, as most attempts to unite Europe have done. At present, the British are disenchanted but not rebellious. The opinion polls show that about a quarter of voters are content with the centralising tendency of Europe - they are the Europhiles; about a half want a more liberal and democratic Europe, but do not want to get out; another quarter do want to get out.
This means that 75% are reformers, against 25% who are happy to accept the Lisbon Treaty. About 75%, however, would prefer to remain in Europe if Europe could be reformed. Thus a large majority would vote against the Lisbon Treaty, if a referendum were called.
However, one cannot avoid feeling anger at the behaviour of the Government. They often promise what the public wishes; they seldom keep their promises. They deserve to be turned out, but by 2010, when they may be turned out, the Lisbon Treaty, with its curb to British independence, will long since have been ratified.
By William Rees-Mogg for the Fleet Street Letter.
William Rees-Mogg was Editor of The Times from 1967 to 1981. He served as High Sheriff of Somerset and was Chairman of the Arts Council of Great Britain. He was the father of the politicians Sir Jacob and Annunziata Rees-Mogg.
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