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Friday, 7 September 2007

7 September 2007

I’m sorry, there’s no escape. It’s time to bite the bullet, or perhaps to grasp the nettle. The Great EU Debate is back.

I re-enter it with great trepidation. I know that, like the Middle East, or genetically-modified food, it is a subject which bores some of you to distraction, and enrages others of you to a state of near apoplexy. So just bear with me, all right?

As you may remember, there once was a proposal to draw up a constitution for the European Union. The voters of first France and then the Netherlands shot it down in flames in two referendums. That was a little over two years ago. There followed a period of stunned disbelief as EU leaders tried to work out why voters at least in those two countries seemed to see things so differently from their elected political leaders.

Now they’ve come up with something called the EU Reform Treaty. It either is, or is not, depending on whom you ask, as near as damn it the same thing, with merely the word “constitution” removed.

It is not for me to make a judgment on such matters, but I like to be helpful if I can, so let me point you in the direction of two websites which may be of assistance. The official government line (“It’s nothing like a constitution”) is admirably set out at www.europe.gov.uk. The opposing viewpoint (“Oh yes, it jolly well is”), together with a line-by-line, word-by-word comparison of the Reform Treaty and the draft constitution, can be found at www.openeurope.org.uk.

But it struck me during last night’s programme, during our discussion with Trevor Kavanagh of The Sun and Polly Toynbee of The Guardian, that perhaps all the huffing and puffing about having a referendum is a bit of a red herring. As I suggested last night, perhaps what it boils down is that those who don’t like the treaty do want a referendum, because they think they’d win it – and those who do like the treaty don’t want a referendum, because they think they’d lose.

But does any of this really matter? Well, sorry, but yes, it does. First, there’s not much point belonging to a club if it can’t take any decisions or deliver any benefits to its members. Second, the euro-debate has brought down prime ministers before now: the names Thatcher and Major spring to mind, and I suspect Gordon Brown has no wish to see his own name added to the list.

I remember a decade or so ago officials in Brussels used to say that the EU was like a bicycle: if it stopped going forward, you’d fall off. They tend not to say that any more, not since the disobliging voters of France and the Netherlands delivered their well-aimed kick to the wheels of the bicycle. My own view, for what it’s worth, is that the EU still needs to do much more to persuade sceptical voters, not only in Britain, that what is being proposed is both necessary and beneficial. But I’d be interested to know what your view is.

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