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We should be debating Britain's place in Europe, not Lisbon's

26 January 2008

Jonathan Church (London, The Federal Trust): "Everyone but a fool (or a minister) knows that the new treaty is the rejected 2005 constitution in all but name" wrote Simon Jenkins in Wednesday's Guardian, referring to well-publicised comments made by Valerie Giscard d'Estaing and Angela Merkel to support this assertion. Brown's case is ignored, presumably on the grounds that somebody like Mr Brown would not be an objective judge of the two treaties. But Jenkins is happy to gloss over the fact that d'Estaing and Merkel also have their pre-existing interests in the debate: one being the Constitution's proud "architect", the other heading a country thoroughly at ease with the original document. The ruling of the Dutch government's independent legal panel, the Council of State, that the two Treaties were "substantially different" is, a cynic might say, no less a product of national political pressures.

None of these interpretations are, or can be, "correct" as such: because there is an inherent ambiguity in the Treaties' provisions (as one would expect when 27 member states, each with differing national political discourses and agendas, come to an agreement) and their effects will depend on those who put them into practice. The attempt to precisely quantify the similarity between the two Treaties is an argument neither side can objectively win, not least because different provisions hold different significance to different people (and some in fact apply differently to different countries).

The bluntness with which Mr Jenkins and others judge that the Lisbon Treaty is the Constitution "in all but name" suggests that a referendum could never be fought on the complexities of the text itself. If leading commentators are content to brush over the ins-and-outs of countless Articles and Protocols, and to make grand pronouncements without weighing up specific changes according to particular criteria, it is not patronising - only realistic - to doubt whether a good portion of the electorate would be any more inclined to take out the fine tooth comb.

A similar analysis applies to the kind of question that could well become central in any referendum on the Lisbon Treaty - "Do we want a federal super-state, or don't we?". It is an impossibly simple question entirely without definition, but packed full of negative connotations. Applied to the Lisbon Treaty, this incoherent term of condemnation would be a powerful but dishonest rhetorical device for those arguing for the Treaty's rejection. A referendum fought along such lines would not be "trusting the people" to analyse the Treaty themselves; it would be a method of projecting a more general unease onto a very particular question.

Proponents of the Lisbon Treaty have been accused of favouring integration "by stealth". Yet it would be no less reprehensible to bring about detachment from the Union 'by stealth', through a referendum supposedly about the Lisbon Treaty, the rejection of which would, by any rational analysis, critically threaten the UK's full membership of the EU.

I for one think the government should trust the electorate enough to pose the question which distorts all debates about the European Union, and which we are in desperate need of answering: is our future in the European Union or not? The government should trust itself to make the case positively, rather than deferring to Eurosceptic "clamour": the only cause, Jack Straw has admitted, of the promise to hold a referendum on the Constitutional Treaty in the first place. In the meantime, there will be a great deal of political heat generated over the coming weeks, but there will, rightly, be no referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Any fool can see that.

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