Jon Humphrys interviews Richard Corbett MEP and Neil O’Brien, campaign director of the "Vote-No" campaign on the BBC Radio 4 Today Programme this morning.
JH: How much do you know about the European constitution? Enough to have a clear view on whether it’s a good thing for this country? Well a poll is about to be published that shows we’re pretty ignorant, not just here but around Europe for that matter.
And what about the level of the debate here? This was Tony Blair speaking in the Commons last April when he announced that there would be a referendum on the EU constitution.
TB (recording): Let the Eurosceptics, whose true agenda we will expose, make their case. Let those of us who believe in Britain in Europe, not because of Europe alone, but because we believe in Britain and our national interest lying in Europe, let us make out case too. Let the issue be put and let the battle be joined.
JH: Well, has battle been joined? Not according to the Labour MEP Richard Corbett, whose worried about it all. He’s on the line and so is Neil O’Brien, campaign director of the "no" campaign. Worried in what sense Mr Corbett?
RC: We’ve all been focusing on more immediate issues because the referendum is still over a year away, presumably. But it is time I think to start discussing this because, if we’re going to have a proper national discussion, people really need to know what’s in this new treaty. And my experience is that the more people actually find out what it says, the more favourable they become.
JH: I take it you wouldn’t agree with that Mr O’Brien?
NO: No, I wouldn’t at all. The reality is that the government are running away from a debate because they know that the constitution is extremely unpopular and there’s a general election in four months time. I mean., 60 percent of businesses are against the constitution and 69 percent of voters are against it . And I think that just because its fundamentally not what they want. It means a further transfer of powers to Brussels and that means more decisions will be taken by people who aren’t elected, aren’t accountable and who we can’t even kick out.
JH: But are they against it because they know what it’s about or because they have bought the propaganda, or some of us have bought the propaganda of some of you?
NO: I don’t think it’s propaganda. I think their fundamental view is, at the moment, that Europe is doing too much and doing it badly. What Europe needs to do is reform properly and sort out some of its problems like, for example, the CAP which costs every household in this country £800 a year. That’s what Europe needs to be doing but instead we’re going ahead with a constitution which transfers even more power to Brussels and that’s completely the wrong direction to be going in.
JH: Isn’t that a very fair point Mr Corbett that, erm, not everybody believes that the EU has been an unrelieved good thing in every single respect and they’re worried they’ll get more of the bad bits?
RC: What is true is that the "no" campaign makes all sorts of unfounded allegations about this treaty. We just heard some of them. It does not transfer more powers to "quote" Brussels "unquote". On the contrary, it makes the European institutions more accountable, more subject to democratic control.
JH: Right, let’s just take.. let me stop you for a second. Let me just take that single issue if I may, because the problem with these discussions is that you have counter-claims and people left at the end of it undecided as to who to believe. So, deal with that single thing would you Mr O’Brien, that what you’ve just said about handing more power to Brussels is simply not true. It becomes more accountable not less.
NO: I glad we can get into the detail here because it’s very important. For example, the constitution would mean that we would give up our right of veto, our right to say "no" in 63 new areas.
JH: Right. Is that true or is it not true, Mr Corbett?
RC: We make sure other countries give up their rights to veto what we want…
JH: So it’s true?
RC: …in 63 areas. Yes, and that’s a good thing. It increases our say in the European Union.
JH: Well, right. OK, Mr O’ Brien. Give us another example.
NO: Another example might, for example. be the new powers that the European Union gets over our economy. The Charter of fundamental rights will be inserted in the treaty despite the fact that the government said it would be no more legally binding that the Beano and that will have a huge impact on our economy. It’ll mean that European judges will be able to impose new regulations on our businesses.
JH: True, Mr Corbett?
RC: Absolutely false. The charter of rights is a restriction on the actions of the European Union. EU laws and decisions that violate those rights can be struck down by the courts. It’s a protection for us, for our people.
JH: Another one, Mr O’Brien?
NO: Let’s just go back to that one. It’s interesting that your saying that it doesn’t increase the European Union’s powers. That’s not what.. interruption…
RC: Its in the constitution by the way. It actually says nothing in this charter can be construed as increasing the powers of the European Union.
NO: Well if you look at what European judges are saying, and the European judges are the ones who are going to have to interpret the treaty, they’re saying that it’s "quotes" nonsense that it doesn’t increase their powers.. The president of the court of justice has said that it will give him huge new powers in new areas...
RC: … to strike down bits of EU decisions…
NO: … and our national laws…
RC: No, no, certainly not national laws. It explicitly says that in the constitution…
JH: (Interrupts) All right, all right, I suspect we can have half an hour on each of these…
(Unintelligible … Corbett keeps talking)
RC: Reforms the Union and wreckers… those who want to wreck the European Union in the "no" campaign…
JH: Hang on now, we’re back to rhetoric so let’s just see if we can fit in another illustration, Neil O’Brien, of your case if you have one there.
NO: Of course we don’t want to wreck the European Union. We want to make it work. I mean, I think pro-Europeans should be against the constitution. Another example would be, say, there’s a commitment in the new constitution, for the first time, that the EU will move to a common defence. Now the government said that should be taken out during the negotiations. But it wasn’t taken out and they signed up anyway.
JH: Right. Mr Corbett?
RC: That’s been in the treaty since the Maastricht Treaty, signed up by John Major in the early 1990s…
JH: So why did the government want it taken out then?
RC: … It can only be done if everybody agrees. What the government wanted was to keep the veto on that, we have a veto on that. It can only be done if everyone agrees. Now, how about putting points to me about what are the good things in the constitution…
JH: Go on, go on then…
RC: …and letting him rebut it?
JH: All Right, all right. We’ve not got very long for it, I’m afraid. I thought it was much easier to do it the other way because... It’s fair, either way. It’s fair isn’t it…
RC: That’s the problem with the debate in Britain. They come up with all sorts of myths and lies and the "yes" people have to simply rebut it. Why not let us say what’s good about this constitution…
JH: Go on, quickly… give us one.
RC: It, it sets out the limits of EU powers. It defines it very clearly and the powers that it does exercise are made more accountable by improving the role of national parliaments and the European parliaments in checking and cross-checking every single EU decision. So no EU law could be adopted without approval…
RC: …both of national governments and of the elected European parliament.
JH: Your chance very quickly to rebut that if you wish, Mr O’Brien.
NO: That’s just vague nonsense. And he’s completely failed to… I’m stunned by his ignorance of what’s in the constitution…
NO: This new commitment to move to a common defence is completely new. The phrase "we’ll move to a common defence" is new.
JH: All right.. laughs. We can’t do this, obviously, in five or six minutes. This is a very long discussion. We shall do it.. we shall continue to do it between now and whenever we have the vote, if we have the vote in the end. Mr Corbett, Mr O’ Brien, thank you both.