Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Lisbon Looming

There's just one day until Brown goes off to Lisbon to endorse (or maybe not endorse) the Lisbon Treaty, and news reports like these should be making some people in Brussels awfully nervous.

Now that the disastrous election fiasco has delivered a firm punch in the jaw to Brown, the Conservatives are eager to continue the momentum and renew demands that he put the treaty endorsement to a referendum. The British tabloid press has also got in on the act.


On its Web site, the British tabloid The Sun has superimposed Brown's face onto a picture of Winston Churchill, turning around Churchill’s tribute to British airmen in World War II, "Never in the field of human conflict was so much owed by so many to so few,” into a jibe at Brown, saying, "Never have so few decided so much for so many." The graphic was accompanied by an online poll.

Part of Labour's manifesto under Tony Blair was that they promised to hold a referendum on an EU constitution, a promise that was meant to contrast with the Conservatives decision not to hold a referendum on theMaastricht Treaty (which essentially created the modern EU) when they were in power in 1991. But before any such constitution could come to a vote in Britain, it was defeated in referendums in France and Holland in 2005, and effectively killed. While the treaty contains much of what was in the constitution, it is not a constitution and, so Brown's argument goes, does not therefor need to be put to a referendum. Essentially, the treaty is a complicated bureaucratic amendment to the previous agreements, and would be inappropriate for a nationwide referendum.

European diplomats seem confident that the treaty will hold, but the timing of Lisbon to coincide with Brown’s election troubles will put the prime minister in a very difficult position. The EU capitulated on every single one of Britain’s “red line” demands for opt-outs and exceptions to the treaty. The UK has even gotten extra concessions on top of the ones it originally demanded. So, Brown has no basis to question whether the treaty is in Britain’s national interest because the UK got everything it wanted. Yet to appease the public at home, he’s going to have to go to Lisbon and, at the very least, do some saber rattling, making himself appear to be a defender of Britain’s national interest. You can understand why one former Europe minister told the International Herald Tribune wearily, "Britain's European politics just goes round and round.”

Only a minority of the public in Britain would suggest that the nation leave the European Union entirely, and certainly no mainstream politician today would suggest such a drastic action. Yet the UK predictably resists every advancement the union attempts to make, creating an impossibly difficult situation for Brussels. Britain won’t leave the union, but it won’t cooperate with it either. And if the treaty is put to a referendum in the UK, it will most likely be voted down. And if it is voted down, the treaty will fail, and no new one will be attempted for some time, if at all. If this happens, it is effectively the end of the EU project.

The problem is that there’s a real disconnect between the government and the public here when it comes to the EU issue. The Europhobic press whips the populace up into a xenophobic panic every time any new EU policy or directive is issued. Euromyths spread like wildfire here, with some people believing that every small hassle they encounter in their daily lives is somehow the fault of the EU. But most of all, the press seems ready and willing to exploit the nation’s post-imperial trauma, convincing them that partnering with Europe is a betrayal of the glorious history of their nation.

Even David Cameron, though he’s rattling on about a referendum now, doesn’t want to be the politician responsible for killing the EU. After all if the conservatives were in power I imagine it would be Labour calling for a referendum right now (as they have in the past). It’s too good of a populist issue for opposition leaders not to exploit. But this vicious cycle has now left Brown with four options:

-Brown could approve the final version of the treaty in Lisbon and refuse all demands for a referendum.

-Brown could reject the final version of the agreement in Lisbon and then put it to a referendum without his support.

-Brown could accept the final version in Lisbon and then put it to a referendum.

-Brown could put Britain's EU membership to a popular vote. This would be an interesting strategy because effectively, that’s what a referendum on the treaty would be anyway (a ‘no’ vote on the treaty would likely have the long-term effect of killing the EU). By putting Britain’s actual membership to a vote, the prime minister would be calling the public’s bluff. Although British opinion on the EU is skeptical, most voters would balk at leaving it. A Eurobarometer poll this year showed that 39 percent of Britons support EU membership compared with 26 percent who were neutral and 30 percent who oppose it.

But this last option is incredibly risky, because no one wants to even think about the dire consequences should the move backfire and the public votes to remove Britain from the EU. And, as many have pointed out, public referendums on EU membership haven’t been able to quell the complaining before. For instance the UK had an ‘in or out’ vote in 1975, but by 1980 Labour Eurosceptics were demanding another one. Round and round we go.

One thing is for sure, there will be a giant collective sigh of relief in Brussels when/if this thing is finally signed and all this hullaballoo about referendums goes away. The BBC's Mark Mardell says that the British diplomats in Luxembourg right now are quite content with the treaty and confident that there won't be any last-minute hitches. But one wonders if this could be due to a lack of communication between Luxembourg and London at the moment...

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