Bill Emmott - International Author & Adviser


Forget the Lisbon treaty
The Times - October 1st 2009

This is an important week for the politics and policy of Britain, but not for any reason connected to the froth of party conferences, prescription drugs or Sun editorials. The reasons lie across the sea in Ireland and across the channel in Germany, in the choices being made by voters there. Those votes can—and should—alter the choices and opportunities faced by Britain and, crucially, by its likely Conservative government.

          Tomorrow, a couple of million Irish voters will seal the fate of the Lisbon treaty, the document that hardly anyone has read and which will determine the powers and institutional structure of the European Union for at least the next decade. Having rejected the treaty in a referendum last year, the Irish are being sent back to the polls in order to give the right answer—from a European point of view—bribed to do so only by some “clarifications” about what the treaty will do and by a promise that Ireland can still send a commissioner to do a non-job for plush pay in Brussels.

          The whole charade should anger anyone who cares about democracy, and indeed about Europe. A constitutional exercise that when it began in 2001 was supposed to make the EU more democratic, transparent and comprehensible to its citizens is doing just the opposite. The treaty, like the original constitution, is unreadable. When Dutch and French voters rejected the original constitution in referendums in 2005, their governments decided that democracy was not, after all, a good idea and reworked the treaty in such a way as to be able to wriggle out of holding new votes. Gordon Brown, ever keen on wriggle, dropped his own referendum promise.

          When the draft constitution was published, I was editor of The Economist, and we recommended that it be filed straight in the nearest rubbish bin. When it was finalised by governments, we recommended that all European voters should reject it. Yet tomorrow, when the Irish hold their lonely vote, under the shadow of their deep recession and the fear that but for the EU they might have been Iceland, I hope (and expect) they will vote yes.

          Why? Part of the reason, I confess, is boredom. The thought of having to read or even engage in any more discussion about EU institutions, voting mechanisms and power structures leaves me cold, especially when economic crises, Iranian nuclear-weapons programmes and rising Chinese power offer far more real and important topics for Europeans to think about. If getting this treaty passed has been a war of attrition, then I am ready to wave the white flag.

          Another part of the reason, though, is embarrassment: if the EU matters, and I think it does, then for its workings to be held up by a handful of voters in one of Europe’s smallest countries, and by a handful of Czech senators who keep challenging the treaty in their constitutional court, is pretty absurd. Personally, I still don’t like the treaty as it represents a huge missed opportunity to modernise the EU, and, more technically, offers too many opportunities to the European Court of Justice to add to federal powers in future. But since 25 governments have accepted it, and since their peoples have not shown that they care much about the treaty nor about the denial of their right to vote on it, it is time to give up. If the Irish vote yes, the game is over.

          That is what David Cameron and his highly Eurosceptic shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, will need to face up to—immediately, at their party conference next week. To threaten to re-open the whole thing when they enter government would be pointless. Worse than pointless, it would be destructive both to British and to Conservative interests.

          A good measure of leadership is whether you choose the right battles to fight. A good measure of statesmanship is whether you have a clear idea of your nation’s interests and objectives. A Tory fight to reopen, or just disrupt, the Lisbon treaty would fail on both measures.

          As has often been the case in the past 20 years, contrary to fog-in-the-channel Eurosceptic claims, the trends in the EU are moving in both a British and a Tory direction. Look at the policies being followed: France’s Nicolas Sarkozy is pushing a carbon tax straight out of Green Dave’s copybook, and is now promising cuts in business taxes. Look at the way European policies are being shaped: not by the European Commission or by any band of federalist ultras, but strictly by deals between governments. But look, most of all, at Germany’s election last Sunday.

          The country that has suffered the biggest drop in GDP of any of the major economies, in which unemployment is tipped to rise rapidly this autumn, has rejected the left and its calls for greater state control, and instead voted in a centre-right coalition that brings together Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats with the Free Democratic Party, the closest thing Germany has to a genuinely liberal, pro-market, small government grouping. This new government is not, of course, about to worship at the altar of Margaret Thatcher. But it will resume, in a careful German way, the task of liberalisation and pro-market reform.

          For a new Tory government in Britain, the European scene could not be better, with right-wing parties in power in both France and Germany. The chance is there to seek common cause on an issue dear to Tory hearts, namely defence and the protection of the NATO alliance, under threat from spending cuts and from the dreadful stresses of Afghanistan. The chance is there too to seek common cause on sensible, pro-market ways to manage environmental policy, on sensible re-constructions of financial regulation, and on the rescuing of the European single market from the damage caused by Chancellor Merkel’s own pre-election bail-out for the Opel car company.

          No British government, let alone a Tory one, is going to fall head over heels in love with a French or German counterpart of any political stripe. But to provoke a row over a boring institutional treaty, which virtually everyone else has already agreed to, would be folly, grand scale. Indeed, if Messrs Cameron and Hague do hang on to Lisbon as one of their battles, it would raise serious doubts about their fitness for government.



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