Sunday, 4 October 2009

Conservatives and Europe

It is a sign of the unreal nature of political debate in the country that the result of the Irish referendum should be seen mainly as a headache for David Cameron. And, of course, it is a headache for David Cameron, if only because until this weekend it was possible to Tories to close their eyes and imagine that if they wished hard enough the whole Lisbon Treaty might just go away. Now they are faced with the stark reality that, barring a miracle, the new system will be up and running before Britain finally has its general election; and that will be that. A referendum in such circumstances would be an absurdity. Cameron and William Hague know this, and most Conservative members, if they're being honest with themselves know it too. Unfortunately the truth is hard to face, because the Lisbon Treaty, like the Constitution it notionally replaces, really does place the keystone in the arch of the European superstate.

The Irish referendum may be the last of its kind anywhere in Europe. In future, changes (by which, invariably, is meant extension of EU power into new areas of formerly national decision-making, further removals of power from the people to the bureaucrats) can take place by modifications of the existing treaties. But, though some of its changes in the Treaty are far-reaching (none more so than the bestowal on the EU of legal personality) its supporters are correct to say that it is basically a consolidating measure. The structure was already almost built. The nations of Europe no longer govern themselves, write their own laws or decide, through democratic votes, their individual destinies. They do, however, appear to do so. Elections are held; parties go through the motions of submitting their policies to the electorate, promising "change" or continuity as appropriate; some governments are voted out of office. But this is increasingly smoke and mirrors.

Conservatives may huff and puff, but short of pulling out of the EU entirely - a dream of many, but politically an unrealisable one - there is no more to be done. For all practical purposes, we can no more secede from the Union than could Alabama in 1860. And while the member states preserve democratic forms in their national institutions, such democracy is missing at the centre. This isn't just a matter of personnel - most Eurocrats tend to be failed politicians, rejected by their voters - it's also inherent in most Brussels procedures, which rely on horse-trading and lobbying with the European parliament itself providing an ineffective veneer of democratic choice.

From a democratic point of view, this is intolerable, even if the Irish were cajoled into voting Yes. A people should simply not be allowed to vote away their democracy: too many dictatorships in history have installed themselves via a fig-leaf of a plebiscite. The British vote in 1975, on membership what appeared to be a vastly different Common Market (though all the signs were there in the Treaty of Rome, if you looked carefully enough) is still used to claim that the country had its say on the issue.

EU constitutionalism remains, as it has always been, of very little interest to most ordinary voters. You have to be a nerdish obsessive to care about passarelle clauses or the precise definition of "legal personality", or what precise areas are subject to qualified majority voting, or even what qualified majority voting actually is. But that doesn't mean the Euro-nerds are wrong, or that ordinary voters have nothing to worry about them. It may be easy to characterise these debates as being remote from people's lives, but the EU now affects almost everything. It as a result of behind-closed-doors meetings in Brussels, not any decision by our elected Parliament, that it's becoming more and more difficult to find a proper lightbulb, or that public money has been wasted putting "metric martyrs" on trial. It might be argued that the regulations European bureaucrats come up with are not noticeably worse, or more undemocratically arrived at, than laws invented by lobbying organisations and whipped through Parliament. And that is true enough. It's even true that national governments (and, even more, their civil servants) positively like the unaccountable lawmaking that goes with EU stitch-ups. But at least national laws can be repealed. The EU legislation machine, like the EU integration machine, only has forward gears.

Conservatives who realise this, along with the fewer members of other parties who realise this, are easy to explain away as little Englanders, or as reactionaries - as though there was anything reactionary or xenophobic about democratic accountability. Such is the part they have long been condemned to play, not because of a media conspiracy but because the alternative would be to engage with the issues, to actually read the Lisbon Treaty, and the treaties that came before it, to become involved in the minutiae of EU business: in short, to become a Euro-bore. It's just too complicated and technical. Better just present the situation as a Problem for David Cameron. That's a far more attractive narrative proposition. Who knows, there may be Rows, there may even be Splits. And there are sure to be staring-eyed loons, monomaniacly fixated on Brussels.

So I pity David Cameron at this time. This is not a problem of his own making. It was Labour's renaging on its election pledge to hold a referendum - supported by the Liberal Democrats - that placed our future in the fickle hands of the Irish. He has very limited room for manoeuvre. He knows that the Lisbon Treaty and all that goes with it, even the horrifying prospect of President Blair, will probably have to be swallowed, and there's nothing he can do about it. He also knows how uncongenial it is to many of his supporters - and for strong reasons. So he clings to the faint hope that the Czech president will somehow save his promised referendum. This is not so much refusing to face the truth as deciding to postpone it - at least until after the conference. There are, after all, more pressing matters. After all, he can't do anything unless he gets elected. And despite what most people assume, that is far from being a foregone conclusion.