Wednesday, 12 January 2011

UK throws a spanner into EU integration

British prime minister David Cameron survived a potential party revolt last night after successfully guiding his "European Union Bill" through a key vote in parliament. The bill, which honours a campaign promise to require every EU Treaty change be put to a public referendum in Britain, has been derided by the Conservative Party's hardcore Eurosceptic wing as being a soft touch.

The hardcore Eurosceptics are furious that the bill would make an exception for "minor" treaty changes, such as the upcoming establishment of a permanent financial rescue mechanism to aid faltering Eurozone states. The Tory leadership has insisted any designation of a treaty change as "minor" would be open to challenge by citizens, but the Eurosceptics counter that the final decision would be made by a judge and therefor the bill is not really "putting power back in the hands of the people" as Cameron claims. The rebel MPs say that what Cameron promised during the campaign was to submit every change, no matter how small, to public vote. They are alleging that the bill has been watered-down to appease the pro-European Liberal Democrats, who the Conservatives are now in coalition with.

But in a showdown vote last night the Eurosceptic rebels were only able to convince 39 coalition MPs to vote against the bill. The opposition Labour Party also voted against it, though they weren't exactly profiles in euro-defending courage in doing it - saying only that it was a 'distraction' from more pressing issues. The bill sailed through this stage of the process and looks set for passage.

Today the British media are heralding a victory for Cameron over the hardcore Eurosceptics who were unable to intimidate the prime minister into enacting a harsher bill. So hooray hoorah, on to the next subject. Brussels must be elated to have been spared this harsh retribution, right?

Well, not quite. What the British media seem to have forgotten to mention, while they were busy reporting on the party intrigues and backbiting within the coaltion, is what the bill that's now heading for passage will actually do. The way it's being reported is that the Eurosceptics have been unsuccessful in their bid to dramatically change the UK's relationship with the EU. But the reality is that even the watered-down bill as it stands will not only dramatically change Britain's relationship with the European Union, it will change the way the EU itself operates for decades to come.

The bill will not only require a referendum on any future treaty change, it will also require one for any participation in enhanced cooperation. This would include Britain's participation in the recently agreed pan-European patent, which British businesses have been desperate for for decades. It will also require a referendum for any change in voting procedures within the European Council on a specific issue, for instance a switch from unanimity to qualified majority voting.

Amusingly, the one area where a referendum won't be required is in the accession of new member states - the one area where most other EU states do require a referendum. As Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Willis observed in an editorial last month, the fact that the Eurosceptic Tories would insert this exception will only fuel the widespread suspicion in Brussels that the UK wants to expand the EU in order to weaken it.

A paralysed new world

What will this new reality of a British referendum being required for every change in the way the EU operates mean? For the next few years it will likely not be noticeable, but down the line it could have the effect of slowing down EU progress to the point of paralysis. The EU is a project in formation, it is being molded and created as it goes along. Over the past 50 years the EU has evolved and expanded through a series of many, many treaties. Some of these treaties heralded drastic changes, such as the Maastricht Treaty of 1992 which created the modern "European Union" as we known it.

But most others have been downright banal, including the just-passed Lisbon Treaty which essentially was a moderate reform of the way the EU operates in order to accommodate the new member states and improve the functioning of institutions. The EU, as an entity-in-creation, requires regular treaty change in order to evolve and progress.

And as is now being observed with the creation of the financial stability mechanism, sometimes treaties need to be amended very quickly to respond to emergency situations. As I wrote last month, what are deliberations in the Council of Ministers going to look like if they know every change they make is going to have to be voted by the seethingly anti-European British public? Because it can be assumed, any referendum called in Britain over anything regarding the EU would result in a 'no' vote. This will mean that Britain's representation in the council will be unable to commit the UK to much of anything, knowing they have to submit it to a British public that will veto anything done in Brussels.

I suspect that Cameron's 'watering-down' of the bill to not include things like the financial stability mechanism that is currently being devised in the council has more to do with the fact that he is confronting this current example of the bill's potential pitfalls than it is due to any influence from his coalition partners. Cameron does not want this 'referendum lock' tested out any time soon, particularly on an issue of such urgency as keeping the euro afloat. Cameron doesn't want to be the man who killed the euro. But this bill may tie his hands as talks go forward on how to save it, for instance during his meeting tomorrow with French Prime Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Sarkozy is reportedly going to ask Cameron to support further Eurozone financial integration in order to save the Euro. During these talks, Cameron wouldn't be free to make any such promises if he thinks any such move will be inevitably voted down by the British public, no matter how badly it is needed. This will be the situation for British leaders for years to come in their negotiations with the EU.

The reality is that because the last round of treaty change was so difficult, Brussels is in no hurry to be doing any big treaty change any time soon - certainly not in the next five years at least. But eventually it will become necessary to make some changes to the way the EU works, in order for the EU to adjust to new realities. And when that time comes, how will Brussels deal with the fact that anything it devises, no matter how big or how benign, will be rejected by a British referendum? And how will such a referendum play out on the ground in the UK?

Rather than being a feel-good exercise of citizen democracy, the eventual UK referendum is going to degenerate into an embarrassing cacaphony of populist nationalism. Whatever the issue, a wave of misinformation will descend over the already ill-informed British public until people would be so confused over what it is they're voting for they'll just give up in disgust. One imagines that the first big EU referendum in the UK could turn into Britain's 'Tea Party moment', a repeat of the ugliness and misinformation that dogged the healthcare fight in the US. As British Lib Dem MEP Andrew Willis noted,
Regular referenda on issues of mind-boggling complexity will further sour the British people's already febrile relationship with the Westminster parliament and its political parties. Nobody need delude him- or herself that an EU referendum in Britain can be won, at least for a generation. The blunt truth is that if this bill becomes law no future EU treaty revision will be possible if the UK remains a full member state of the Union.
In the end, if the British vote 'no' on something the rest of the EU is ready to approve, the only logical next step would be for the British to have an 'in or out' referendum on its own membership. One can't quite predict how that will go, but I suspect it would be a 'yes' because deep down the British know they need the EU. But they can't stay in it if they're going to drag it down by rejecting every attempt at treaty change.

So there you have it, quite a bleak future for the UK's relationship with the EU. And there's little chance of this bill being overturned by a future government. As Tory Minister for Europe David Liddington noted, the bill will be untouchable because the “political cost” to any government that tried to repeal it, thus taking a voting right away from the public, would be unthinkable. In this way, as long as the UK remains a full member of the EU, the entire European project may be handicapped for some time.


mathew said...

Good post, and a spot on prediction.

The only question I have is why more countries don't have such laws!

After all, we all watched Ireland get more out of the latest treaty changes because they are legally obliged to have a referendum.

The obvious conclusion for any Member State is that introducing a requirement for a referendum is an excellent way of getting more concessions during the next negotiations.

Of course, if more countries do follow this idea to its logical conclusion, everything will grind to an even more definitive halt.

Until the day the EU can explain itself so well to its citizens that it dares expect a reasoned debate in a EU referendum. We face a long wait, I'm afraid.

Gulf Stream Blues said...

Well it's a double-edged sword I'd imagine. Ireland can negotiate opt-outs and special benefits by persistently having this first vote no second vote yes pattern, but what if the second vote isn't a yes? It's a risky game to play because you risk having your country be the one holding up essential EU reform. It also takes negotiating power away from the government because they never know what they can promise or not promise when everything is subject to the whims of an unpredictable general public.

Mol said...

If the UK doens't want to be part of Europe they should just leave and stop holding the rest of the continent back. I think it's debatable what benefit we get from having welcomed in this decaying husk of an empire. Chirac opposed their entry in 1973, and I think he was right to do so. They have a bad attitude.

jolyonwagg1 said...

Why do many people within the UK feel totally detached from the Brussels institution's?
Well its simple really,the last time the UK people were asked for there consent in a EU referendum was in 1979. That's right 1979? No wonder the UK is eurosceptic after 31 years of being told what to accept by being force fed endless EU directives from Brussels.

People in the UK value there liberty and freedom and are distrustful of big centralized powers like the EU which is run almost on a Kremlin style level,and grows further and further apart from its citizens?