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Neil O'Brien: They think you’re stupid

Ahead of the EU summit in two weeks, Open Europe of which Neil is Director, will write for ConservativeHome each weekday this week outlining the ways in which the EU constitution is returning by stealth, and how we should resist it.

Here we go again.  EU leaders are meeting in two weeks time to re-launch the constitutional treaty which was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005. 

In fact, delegates appointed by the 27 leaders have been meeting behind closed doors since the start of the year, trying to thrash out a deal, and the outline of the new version is already starting to become apparent from leaks.

Their collective strategy for pushing through the revised text is even clearer.  For once, the EU has learned from its mistakes.  There will be no more referendums, and no more negotiating in public.  There will be no fireworks. Unlike last time, EU leaders won’t go around boasting about how it is “the capstone of a federal state” or “the birth certificate of a United States of Europe”.

But the contents will be largely the same.  As Angela Merkel explained in a leaked letter to other heads of Government, the plan is “To use different terminology without changing the legal substance” while making a number of “presentational changes.”

Such cynicism isn’t confined to Angela Merkel.  A group of EU “wise men” including Chris Patten have already published a draft of an “amending treaty” in which they propose to “take over almost all the innovations contained in the constitutional treaty” and “only leave aside the symbolic changes that were introduced by the constitutional treaty – such as the title of the treaty and the symbols of the Union.”

The Government seems to think this will be enough to fool the public.  Tony Blair now argues that “If it is not a constitutional treaty so that it alters the basic relationship between Europe and the member states, then there isn’t the same case for a referendum.”

But hang on a minute.  The PM never did accept that the original constitution changed our relationship with the EU.  When he originally announced the promise of a referendum in April 2004 he insisted that “The treaty does not and will not alter the fundamental nature of the relationship between member states and the European Union… Parliament should debate it in detail and decide upon it. Then, let the people have the final say.”

Brown is striking a eurosceptic pose.  For example, the Sunday Times yesterday reported that Brown will fight off the attempt to bring back the full constitutional treaty by, er… signing up to a new “treaty” which, although it has most of the same proposals, will no longer have the word “constitution” in the title.  Pretty tough negotiator, eh?

It won’t wash for a single second.  So much of what is going to be in the revised constitutional treaty is exactly the same as in the first one.

Institutional changes which are almost certain to reappear include an EU President; an EU Foreign Minister and Diplomatic Service; and a new voting system which would cut the UK’s power to block legislation by 30%.

The Government argues that the new version will no longer have the “characteristics of a constitution”.  But what sort of document is it that sets up a President and Foreign Minister and determines how decisions are made, if not a “constitution”?

In reply to a question from Kate Hoey just after the French and Dutch “no” votes Jack Straw made it clear that you could only see an EU president and EU Foreign Minister set up in “constitutional” treaty:

    KH: I am sure the Foreign Secretary would agree that among the things that are synonymous with the European Union are back-door and back-room deals. Will he assure me that one matter that he would certainly submit to a referendum is the creation of a Foreign Minister and a European President?

    JS: Those points are central to the European constitutional treaty, and of course I see no prospect of their being brought into force, save through the vehicle of a constitutional treaty.

It’s blindingly obvious that these proposals are constitutionally significant.  Setting up an EU President would mean setting up another powerful, independent Brussels institution.  Control of the 3,500 civil servants in the Council Secretariat would give the President a substantial power base – and the president would have an incentive to expand its own powers.  Indeed, the new President would fundamentally change the nature of the legislative process in Brussels. Instead of negotiations between the supranational Commission and a national head of Government (with a vested interest in protecting the rights of member states), negotiations would in future take place between one unelected, independent Brussels institution and another.

Many also see the President as a stepping stone to a US-style President of Europe. The author of the constitutional treaty, Valery Giscard d’Estaing, has already suggested that the new President of the Council will later be merged with the President of the Commission, and be directly elected.  Nicolas Sarkozy has also recently backed making the President directly elected.  During the negotiations on the constitution Jack Straw said the UK “would have preferred to have explicit separation of those two posts”. The UK Government tried to block an amendment which allows the two posts to be merged, but it later gave way.

The new treaty is likely to include the “EU Foreign Minister” proposed in the original constitution.  In itself this would create a powerful supranational official, and give the Commission a role in foreign policy which the UK has long opposed.  Former Europe Minister Denis MacShane has predicted that “The voice of the future Union Minister for Foreign Affairs will be louder than that of the ministers of each nation.” It’s not clear what would happen if member states took a different line to the Foreign Minister, which creates the dangerous possibility of sending mixed messages to the rest of the world. 

However, on top of this, the constitutional treaty also proposed that the EU Foreign Minister should have various new powers – for example: to “automatically” speak on behalf of member states in key international meetings like the UN security council; to make proposals which would then be decided on by majority vote; and to run a powerful independent EU Diplomatic Service. During the negotiations on the constitution the UK opposed all three of these ideas, but later gave way. 

The UK will insist on changing the name of the “Foreign Minister” (and possibly the ‘President’) to something less emotive in the new treaty, but it is not clear whether the UK will also insist on taking away the substantive powers which would come with the roles.  As Italian Prime Minister Romano Prodi has pointed out: “as long as we have more or less a European Prime Minister and a European Foreign Minister then we can give them any title.”

The problem with the EU is that there is never a plan B.  They just try to stuff plan A down voters throats again and again until they swallow it.  And because the EU is so complicated, and so un-transparent, they often get away with it.

As Luxembourg’s Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker famously explained:

“we decide on something, we leave it lying around and wait and see what happens. If no one kicks up a fuss, because most people don’t know what has been decided, we continue step by step until there is no turning back.”


That’s why we need to start kicking up a fuss now.  The debate about the new constitutional treaty is a significant fork in the road. If the leaders of the EU get away with pushing it through without referendums then they will press on with further steps to deeper integration. 

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has already said that while the new text will cover “the most urgent priorities…  in the longer term, root-and-branch reforms remain essential.” European Commission President Jose Barroso has hinted that once the revised constitutional treaty is in place, “nothing rules out the possibility of certain more ambitious aspects later on.”

So what sort of Europe do we want?  Is it a Europe where failing policies like the CAP are allowed continue for decades?  A Europe which maintains unfair trade barriers against developing countries? A Europe which is long on rhetoric about the environment, but allows emissions to rise in practice? A Europe where decisions go on being made in secret, by people who are not elected - and seemingly cannot be punished even if they are corrupt?

EU leaders should have changed course after the French and Dutch referendums, but they didn’t listen.  We need an opportunity to finally end “integration by stealth” once and for all - and make a fresh start.   


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