Richard North, 02/08/2020  

From last week, when I had just finished 2006, a week's of intensive work has brought me to the end of 2009, adding three years to the narrative and bringing the first of my new chapters to an end.

The last three years are a fascinating period, which saw the structured attempt to transform the rejected European Constitution into a "Reform Treaty", which then became the Lisbon Treaty, following which there was a near two-year battle to complete the ratification process.

The decision to transform the constitution into a treaty was heavily influenced by Angela Merkel, the sole reason being to circumvent the need for the referendums which had brought down the original constitution.

And, although the pretence was maintained, officially, there were plenty who were prepared to give the game away. For instance, European Parliament President, Hans-Gert Pöttering – who had been working with Merkel's triumvirate on the new treaty – in June 2007 told the Council of Europe in Strasbourg that while a proposed anthem and flag had been dropped, 'the substance of the constitution has been retained'.

He was later to claim in a letter to Giscard d'Estaing that the treaty had been designed to "keep the advances" of the old constitution "that we would not have dared present directly".

In July, before the new treaty draft had even been published, Jean-Claude Juncker, then Luxembourg's premier, spoke to the Belgian edition of Le Soir. He said he supported public debate on the treaty - except in Britain.

"'I am astonished at those who are afraid of the people: one can always explain that what is in the interest of Europe is in the interests of our countries", he said, adding: "Britain is different. Of course, there will be transfers of sovereignty. But would I be intelligent to draw the attention of public opinion to this fact?"

But it was former Italian prime minister, Giuliano Amato who offered the most entertaining exposé. Of the new treaty, he said, "EU leaders had decided that the document should be 'unreadable'".

On that basis, the UK prime minister could go to the Commons and say "Look, you see, it's absolutely unreadable, it's the typical Brussels treaty, nothing new, no need for a referendum'. On the other hand, he said, "Should you succeed in understanding it there might be some reason for a referendum, because it would mean that there is something new".

By some, this was put down as a "playful observation", but its truth was evident when the full 287-page version of the treaty was finally published on 3 December 2007, by which time it had acquired its new title of the Treaty of Lisbon.

The new treaty was indeed "unreadable", comprising thousands of amendments rather than a finished version of a treaty. But once the current treaties had been amended by this text, there was no doubt that the end product was very little different from the original constitution.

So said the House of Commons European scrutiny committee in October 2007, which described it as "substantially equivalent". But the most powerful figure to attest as to the similarity was no-one other than Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, architect of the original constitution.

The difference, he said, was one of approach, rather than content. "In terms of content, the proposed institutional reforms – the only ones which mattered to the drafting Convention – are all to be found in the Treaty of Lisbon. They have merely been ordered differently and split up between previous treaties".

The cynical nature of this deception was carried through by all the EU Member State leaders, who resolutely refused to allow referendums. The only exception were the Irish, whose constitution required then to hold a poll.

But, on 12 June 2008, the Irish people rejected the treaty in their referendum by a margin of 53.4 to 46.6 percent. The turnout was 53.1 percent - higher than the two Nice treaty referendums. All but ten constituencies voted "No", with a total of 862,415 votes. Only 752,451 voted "Yes".

The result should not have come as a surprise. The more committed "No" voters had dominated the debate, while the "Yes" campaign had difficulty mobilising the potentially large but lukewarm segment of the pro-EU electorate.

The week before the vote, an Irish Times poll has given the "No" campaigners a lead of 35-30 percent. Yet one thing thought to be in favour of the "Yes" campaign was that no one knew exactly what was in the treaty.

Ireland's Commissioner Charlie McCreevy estimated that, at best, 250 of Ireland's 4.2 million citizens had read the complete text.. Not only did he admit that he had not read the treaty, making do with a summary, he said that 'no sane, sensible person' would read it either. To him, it was a "tidying up exercise". This was a claim that was to be repeated many times, by all manner of treaty apologists.

Barroso, said he believed the treaty was still 'alive', but was immediately contradicted by Luxembourg's prime minister, Jean-Claude Juncker – the longest serving leader in the EU - who said the result meant it could not enter into force in January 2009 as planned.

Irish prime minister, Brian Cowen, admitted the vote had been a 'potential setback' for Europe. He refused to answer questions about the treaty, and specifically whether he thought it was now dead. "We have to absorb what happened. There is no quick fix but the government will respect the wishes of the Irish people", he said.

Nevertheless, after the immediate, shock reactions, the default response did not take long to emerge. "The Irish will have to vote again", Sarkozy declared. There were ritual protests and "quiet fury", but that was the "European" way. Less than one percent of the EU's 490 million people would not be allowed to interfere with the dream.

Part of the ritual would be to demonstrate that the "Noes" did not understand what they had voted for, against the presumption that "Yes" voters had perfect knowledge. This was something we were to see again in the UK 2016 Referendum.

The "ignorance" was duly established in early September via an opinion poll conducted for the Irish Government. A total of 42 percent of "No" voters obligingly cited a lack of knowledge or understanding of what they were voting on.

Some 33 percent thought European army conscription was part of the treaty, while 34 percent believed they would lose control over the country's abortion policy. An earlier European Commission poll indicated that almost three-quarters of people had mistakenly believed the treaty could be easily renegotiated.

With that established, on 3 October 2009, Irish voters obediently trotted through their polling stations to give the treaty a resounding 67 percent "Yes". Turnout was 58 percent. By then, Europe was embroiled in the global financial crisis and many saw this as a primary reason for the turnaround. Predictably, Barroso said it was a "great day for Europe".

The last two hold-outs were the Polish and the Czech presidents, who quickly fell into line and the Lisbon Treaty entered into force on 1 December 2009. The "colleagues" had got their treaty, but the biggest loser was David Cameron.

Having given a "cast-iron guarantee" that he would provide a referendum on the treaty, it had come into force before the election and he had been able to form a government. Cameron thus had to explain that the Lisbon Treaty was no longer a Treaty. It was being incorporated into the law of the European Union. "We cannot hold a referendum and magically the treaty disappears, any more than we could hold a referendum to stop the sun rising in the morning", he said.

By way of compensation, Cameron promised that a Conservative government would guarantee a referendum if there is any attempt to transfer further powers from Britain to the EU, and he pledged a renegotiation aimed at repatriating some powers. Neither was enough. It was to cost him a majority in the 2010 election.

But that is another story.

Also published on Turbulent Times.

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