Yesterday, Sarkozy and Merkel agreed on further details about the new EU Treaty. They issued a joint statement, including this:
“France and Germany believe that it is necessary to revise the [Lisbon] Treaty.” The revision should be aimed at “establishing a permanent and robust mechanism to ensure an orderly resolution of crises in future […] The necessary amendments should be adopted and ratified by member states in accordance with their respective constitutional rules in due course by 2013.”
Given that the fact that there is to be a new EU Treaty has been almost completely unreported in the UK and certainly not the subject of material political discussion, this might come as something of a surprise to some readers - so I shall briefly explain.
The Union shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of any Member State, without prejudice to mutual financial guarantees for the joint execution of a specific project. A Member State shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments, regional, local or other public authorities, other bodies governed by public law, or public undertakings of another Member State, without prejudice to mutual financial guarantees for the joint execution of a specific project.
Note that: "A Member State shall not be liable for or assume the commitments of central governments". It's nothing to do with whether EU does it qua EU or whether countries act bilaterally. This article was inserted into the Treaty at Maastricht precisely because the Germans feared that, without a Treaty clause forbidding Member States from bailing out each others' debt, the Italians would run up huge debts, threaten to default, and because default would threaten the stability of the euro, the Germans would be forced to bail them out.
The bailouts thus violate the EU Treaty in about as blatant a manner as could be imagined - so much so, indeed, that French Europe minister Pierre Lallouche declared that "De facto, we have changed the treaty." (Some of the technical operations of the European Central Bank in respect of its treatment of Greek government bonds also indirectly violate Treaty rules, but we don't need to go into the details - the main bailout fund is such a blatant violation of the explicit letter and spirit of the Treaty that other minor violations pall in comparison.)
So we need to change the Treaty even to validate what has already happened. But that is only the beginning. Because of course if Eurozone members are to become guarantors of each others' debts, they will need mechanisms to protect themselves from Member States running up huge unsustainable debts then calling in the bailout promises. The current Treaty provides no mechanisms that are even remotely adequate. What will need to happen is that if countries wish to run deficits above some threshold lower than the Maastricht limit (say, 2%), they will need to obtain explicit authorisation from some central EU committee on which finance ministries of other Eurozone members are represented. If countries simply cheat and lie (as the Greeks did) there will have to be mechanisms to fine them in the short term or, in extreme cases, "suspend" their euro membership. Without some such mechanism of protection in a new Treaty, there is a material chance that German voter antipathy to the whole arrangement (which is currently intense) will boil over and the Germans will leave the euro and perhaps also the EU. It is that serious.
It has thus been obvious since the summer that this would be necessary. That was why I kept going on about it. And indeed, after some initial silly talk about vetoing any new Treaty, in June (just on the eve of the Emergency Budget - a curious coincidence) Cameron accepted in Parliament that there might need to be a new EU Treaty and said that the British government would support it provided that it affected only the Eurozone.
Now we Eurosceptics have been used to the idea that new EU Treaties are a Bad Thing. We assume that whenever there is a new Treaty, that means that there will be more power passing from the UK to Brussels. But not every new Treaty could be bad. After all, we entered three General Elections in a row promising to renegotiate our position in the EU so as to repatriate powers. "Renegotiate" - i.e. negotiate a new Treaty. We have been committed for over a decade to seeking a new EU Treaty - a Treaty changed such that certain powers were returned to Westminster and removed from EU jurisdiction.
So Conservatives ought to be exultant today. Many said that with the passage of Lisbon the final chance to renegotiate was gone - that thereafter the EU constitution would be self-amending, with no need of further Treaty changes to integrate further. Well, there is going to be a new Treaty. Cameron has now, starting immediately, the opportunity to begin negotiating for the new Treaty to include repatriation of the powers Westminster wants back.
This needs to begin now. It will be no good waiting until a draft new Treaty is on the table before raising the matter of what changes we want in there. Even before that, we need a national conversation, a political debate on the matter. Which provisions should we seek to repatriate on this occasion? Is it enough for us to renegotiate certain fundamental matters, trusting that once these are in place all else that we desire will eventually follow? Or do we need to get everything in there, as this might be our only chance? Is it just a matter of criminal law, the euro, the status of the acquis, and so on, or do we also need to deal with the CAP, the CFP and so on?
So - all's good... Except that it isn't. Look again at that Telegraph article I linked to. What does the British government say? "'This government will not accept any treaty revisions,' said a senior coalition source." Totally unacceptable. And not just to me.
Backbench Conservative MPs. My friends and allies. Do you really want to go back to your constituency associations and explain to them that, despite the Conservative Party rejecting the past three Treaties (Lisbon, Nice, Amsterdam) and large parts of what went before (e.g. parts of Maastricht and of Rome), despite banging your fists on the table and proclaiming your patriotism, despite condemning Tony Blair and Gordon Brown as liars and quasi-traitors for ratifying Lisbon without a referendum after making a General Election pledge to do otherwise, despite dismissing Ukippers who declared that the Conservatives would backslide if they ever got into government as fruitcake conspiracy theorists, despite promising again and again and again that you were different and that the European mistakes of the past were in the past, despite saying that, for you, this was a conscience issue - despite all this, you are going to go back to your constituency associations and explain to them that, in fact, you are going to let matters lie where they lay post-Lisbon and that when a new Treaty came along it just wasn't very convenient to renegotiate; that, in short, you had been a liar virtually your whole political career.
Do you fancy explaining that to your constituency association? Or are you planning to agitate to force Cameron to take this opportunity that Fate has presented for us to renegotiate, as we promised? They'll tell you that the Lib Dems will never agree. Who gives a hoot? Once Osborne's speech tomorrow is finished and the Lib Dem leadership has nodded dutifully along as each cut was announced their usefulness is over. We don't need them. We never did. What we need to do is what we believe in, so that the voters will realise that we are not the unprincipled careerist dissemblers they take us for.
You know I'm right. Now act on it.