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Booker: hope hidden in Lisbon

2012-07-08 00:02:30

Booker lis 386-gws.jpgYou do really wonder whether all those self-appointed "experts" on the EU are more in tune with Kenneth Clarke he who never read the Maastricht treaty than they are with reality.

That might possibly explain Booker's observation in his column today, where he remarks that: "Rarely can so much vapid political nonsense have been expended on any subject as that we have recently heard from all sides about an EU referendum".

Putting together our best assessment of a fluid situation, Booker asserts that, whatever David Cameron and Lord Mandelson may say, the referendum is not something that can simply be pushed away into the indefinite future.

On the Continent, the talk is that, despite the fiasco of the recent "summit", there urgently needs to be another major treaty, which would be so far-reaching in its moves towards political union. Should this come to fruition, thanks to Cameron's "referendum lock", Britain would be one of many countries obliged to hold a referendum.

Meanwhile, in Britain all the relentless chatter has only demonstrated, again, the astonishing ignorance on this side of the Channel about the real nature of the "European project".

Two arguments in particular are often heard each based on a fundamental misconception. One is that we need a referendum because today's "Europe" is so different from the one we joined in 1973. The other, encouraged by Cameron himself, is that in due course we can negotiate a new relationship with it, involving a "repatriation of powers".

The Common Market we joined was never intended to be anything but a staging post on the way to eventual political union, as the politicians who led us into it were fully aware.

When Booker and I were researching our history of the project, some years ago, we were able to document in detail how, as far back as 1961, Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath were left in no doubt that political union was the ultimate goal.

But, as Cabinet papers of the time reveal, Macmillan was convinced that the British people would not accept this, and that it must therefore be sold to them as no more than a trading arrangement.

This was one reason why we called our book The Great Deception an epithet that is even more appropriate to the time, a decade later, when Heath finally secured Britain's membership, assuring us that it would involve "no essential loss of sovereignty".

Many people did indeed fondly imagine that we were merely joining a "free trade area" but only because they were being deliberately deceived. Heath knew full well that the Common Market (in fact a tightly regulated customs union) was only a preliminary step towards the "ever closer union" that we have seen taking shape since of which the euro was designed to be the supreme symbol.

The project's core doctrine has always been the acquis communautaire: the rule that once powers are handed over to Brussels they can never be given back. That is why it is futile to talk of Britain negotiating a "new relationship" with Brussels involving repatriation of powers. It cannot happen, because it would be in breach of the project's most sacred principle.

There is only one way in which we could force the other EU states into negotiating a new relationship for Britain. If our politicians, led by Cameron, were actually to read the treaty, they would find this power under Article 50, inserted at Lisbon: such a negotiation can only be triggered if we notify the EU that we wish to leave it.

Then, and only then, would our EU colleagues be compelled (rather than "persuaded") to enter into the negotiations necessary to establish our "future relationship with the Union".

As we have said before, the very last thing Cameron could countenance is notifying the EU that we wish to leave it even though the alternative is that, under a new treaty, we would remain impotently in the second tier of an EU wholly controlled by the eurozone.

But unless all the Tory MPs clamouring for the "repatriation of powers" grasp the crucial importance of Article 50, talk of a referendum on a "new relationship" with the EU is just self-deceiving fluff.

Either we go for Article 50, or we are doomed to become second-class European citizens that is, until the EU itself disintegrates, because it is incapable of finding a rational solution to the stupendous shambles that its reckless ambition has led it into.

That is Booker's conclusion but, so deeply embedded is the self-deception and ignorance within the Conservative party, that it is hard to see any immediate changes or better understanding of the situation. Cameron, therefore, is condemned to surrender the initiative and to react to situations over which he has no control.

We have no idea when (or if) the "colleagues" will succeed in finalising their new treaty, but the best estimate is that it will come about at roughly the same time the British general election is under way. Thus, Cameron will be forced to hold a referendum, on the "wrong" issues at the wrong time, under circumstances which could be electorally damaging unless managed with a great deal more skill than he has so far shown.

For reasons I explored earlier, this early referendum cannot be an "in/out" referendum, and could have to be so framed that Cameron is forced (or wishes to) support the EU position.

The more I think of this, the more impossible the position seems to become. The best way is to invoke an early Article 50 notification and opt out of the new treaty negotiations and ratification.

To do so, though, would require political courage and clarity, two attributes for which Cameron is not famous. But, for want of action, he risks allowing himself to be trapped in a position from which there is no escape.

Perversely, then, the escape route lies in the Lisbon treaty, the very treaty on which he promised a referendum and then resiled. How ironic it will be if ignoring that same treaty proves to be his downfall.