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Labour's broken promise of a referendum on the new EU Treaty is a betrayal of public trust

15th October 2007

Gordon Brown shaking hands with President Juncker

This week, European ministers will rubber stamp a new EU Treaty almost identical to the constitution rejected two years ago. Labour's promise of a referendum is one of the most scandalous abuses of public trust in our post-history. To be honest, it was hard not to laugh.

The normally complacent fug of the giant Berlaymont headquarters of the European Union was shattered two years ago by the midnight news that the French - the French! - had rejected the eurocrats' latest grand project, the European Constitution.The tense crowd of journalists and officials waiting in Brussels to hear the results of the French referendum included Jean-Claude Juncker, the leader of Luxembourg ( population 450,000), who happened to hold the Buggins'-turn presidency of the EU.

And President Juncker's reaction? The French, he insisted, would have to carry on voting until they gave the 'right answer'. The remark betrayed breathtaking arrogance.

But, of course, the bitter truth is that approach had worked before: the Danish and the Irish had both become befuddled enough to reject EU treaties in the past, only to see the error of their ways the second time round.

"We need to continue with our ambitious projects,"

the president said.

The irony is that Juncker, a deeply unimpressive man possessing all the grandeur of an actuary, was not showing contempt for EU-style democracy, but undue faith in it. We now know that the French and Dutch voters, who brought Europe to a shuddering crisis by rejecting the constitution in 2005, won't have the chance to give the 'right answer' the second time around: there will be no second time.

Their governments are so terrified their citizens will make the same mistake again that they are determined to ram the revived constitution through compliant parliaments. And in Britain, our Government won't even allow us to make a mistake for the first time. Labour won an election in 2005 on a manifesto pledge to give the British people a referendum on the treaty, but just two years later has reneged on the deal.

Jose Manuel Barroso, the powerful president of the European Commission, which runs the EU, mused recently that the EU is sometimes seen as a conspiracy by politicians against their people. It is difficult to think how the EU - where ministers make laws behind closed doors that national parliaments cannot overrule - could do more to give that impression if it wanted to.

Valery Giscard D'Estaing, the former French president who wrote the constitution, explained his tactics:

"Public opinion will be led to adopt, without knowing it, the proposals that we dare not present to them directly."

Even europhile Hugo Young (the late Guardian columnist) entitled his magisterial history of the EU This Blessed Plot. Only those ignorant of the EU's ways will be surprised that the once dead constitution has been resurrected. Created to tie Europe together after World War II, the EU was designed to have an inner momentum for never ending integration that is all but unstoppable.

Juncker's successor as EU president, Tony Blair, announced that after the two 'No' votes, Europe would enter a period of reflection. But Europe looked in the mirror and, unable to accept the flaws it saw, brought the same treaty back again - minus the title 'Constitution' and the reference to EU flags, EU anthems, EU mottos and a special Europe day that Europeans would be required by international treaty to celebrate.

Yet even hardened cynics and europhiles are being moved to anger by Gordon Brown's refusal to let the people have their say. This is the Prime Minister who finally grasped the most powerful job in the land promising:

"I will listen and I will learn. I want to lead a government humble enough to know its place, where I will always strive to be - and that's on the people's side."

This is the Prime Minister who promised:

"We've got to honour that manifesto. It is an issue of trust for me with the electorate."

This is the Prime Minister, elected by neither his MP's nor his party members nor his country, who welcomed President Barroso to Downing Street last week and who will attend a summit in Lisbon on Thursday to put the finishing touches to a constitution on which he now insists there is no need for a referendum. This is one of the greatest political betrayals of public trust in post-war history.

The only real question for me is why any politician bothers making speeches or attending seminars on why voters in Britain are being turned off democracy. Isn't it obvious? It isn't working; it isn't responding to the clear will of the people. The Government claims the new treaty (the 'Reform Treaty') is not the same as that old constitution.

As David Miliband, a Foreign Secretary so young he was not allowed to vote in the 1975 referendum on whether we should pull out of the Common Market that Britain had joined in 1973, put it:

"The Constitutional Treaty has been abandoned."

However, politicians across La Manche are being more frank. Angela Merkel, the German chancellor, who gave the kiss of life to the treaty, crowed:

"The substance of the constitution is preserved; that is a fact."

Margot Wallstrom, the stunningly lightweight Swedish vicepresident of the Commission, responsible for selling the concept of Europe to Europeans, said:

"It is essentially the same proposal as the old constitution."

Irish leader Bertie Ahern declared it was 90per cent the same, sparking a bidding war with other European leaders who have said it is up to 98 per cent identical. Last week, in our House of Commons, the Labour-dominated European Scrutiny Committee agreed the new document was 'substantially equivalent' to the one Labour promised a referendum on.

Gordon Brown faces a revolt of his own MP's - as many as 30 are expected to vote against the constitution when Parliament is asked to ratify it next year. But with a majority of 66, Brown is almost certain to win a vote in the Commons against holding a referendum. Again, is it any surprise that people are losing faith in our democracy?

Unions, including the GMB and Unison, are demanding a vote, but count for nothing in the Brown calculus. Eurosceptic campaigners are relying on the media to create irresistible pressure, but much of the Press is suffering outrage fatigue from its exertions the last time the treaty was an issue.

Ironically, it may fall to ex-Communist countries like Poland or the Czech Republic to bounce our government into respecting democracy, by having their own referendums, causing the European constitution to crash.

Gordon Brown repeatedly quotes his glorious-sounding 'red lines' (key areas of national interest such as justice, home affairs, social security and foreign policy which he has promised to safeguard) as a reason not to hold the referendum - we have protected our national interests, so we have nothing to fear. But these red lines have been devised by spin doctors to persuade the media that ministers are defending Britain's sovereignty.

Contained in the new treaty is a slight reformulation of opt-outs that Britain enjoys in various policy areas, notably criminal justice. Yet, as we have learned many times in the past, these opt-outs, which come with heavy penalties if you use them, might seem good on paper, but in reality are usually ineffective (there are exceptions: for example, Britain successfully opted out of the single currency).

Squeal as British officials might, we normally end up getting bullied, brow-beaten or blackmailed into going with the European tide. As a former Brussels correspondent, I watched with awe as British diplomats went in to defend a 'vital national interest', even armed with an opt-out, only to quietly - usually almost silently - concede defeat, before declaring it a triumph and claim it to be a slur to suggest they hadn't always wanted it.

Do you remember the fundamental principle that the EU should have no right to impose criminal laws on the UK against the wishes of our Parliament? This was swept aside in a judgment by the European Court of Justice (one of the main motors for integration) which ruled, against the British government, the British parliament and the British people, that our European partners had the right to require Britain to introduce a criminal law even if not a single person in Britain wanted it.

This is the opposite of governing by consent, one of the founding principles of democracy. Don't forget the British Government had an opt-out on the Working Time Directive, a European law no British government has supported, but which is now nearly fully imposed in Britain. As Michael Connarty, Labour chairman of the European Scrutiny Committee, put it recently, Labour's red lines on the constitution would 'leak like a sieve'. What is happening is not small scale.

The British Government may claim that the constitution - which brings in a permanent EU president, an EU foreign minister, allows the EU to sign binding treaties on our behalf and transfers dozens of powers from Westminster to Brussels - is a mere tweaking. Other EU leaders are at least being honest. Belgian prime minister Guy Verhofstadt described the constitution as the 'capstone of a federal state'.

Romano Prodi, Italian prime minister and former European Commission president, told me the EU is

"a big change in the concept of nation states. It is a change of centuries of history."

If none of the reasons for doing without a constitution hold water, there may be another - the same reason Gordon Brown decided not to hold a general election: the fear of losing. Europhiles rarely admit it, but Timothy Garton Ash, the doyen of intellectual europhiles, has had a moment of extraordinary honesty, confessing in the Guardian:

"I have to say that when I talk privately to pro-European friends, this is almost invariably the clinching argument: 'Because we would lose it.' Even as I write this line, I know it is a gift to British eurosceptics."

Indeed, Timothy, thank you. But I would not, strange as it may seem, describe myself as a eurosceptic. I am just gravely concerned about the state of democracy. The EU does a lot of good things. Despite its many ridiculousnesses, despite the fact it is designed to fight the problems of the early 20th century rather than those of the 21st, we are, on balance, better off in than out. If the EU didn't exist, we'd have to invent it.

A dense patchwork of countries needs rules to ensure we all get along, and a forum in which to make those rules. But, as the saga of the constitution shows, Europe's supporters have become its worst enemies.

The excess of their ambition, and their contempt for democracy and for the ordinary Europeans they claim to represent, mean the EU is not just losing the support of its citizens, but is destroying support for European co-operation. The story of the constitution is a tragedy for europhiles and a gift to eurosceptics, proving their every claim to be true. It is making it almost impossible for an intellectually honest person to be in favour of the current European project.

Those who really love Europe should think beyond a narrow short-term political calculation and try to build Europe, not on deception but on a solid foundation of popular support. For Europe's sake, give us a say on Europe.

Taken from the Daily Mail 15th October 2007
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