Saturday 3 October 2009

The Irish won't need a third referendum..what do the Tories do?

It looks as though the Irish will vote to adopt the new European Constitution (I call it a Constitution rather than a Treaty because that is what it really is).

The main reason seems to be that the credit crunch has made many feel safer in a larger Europe; that's strange because:
- most of Ireland's specific problems came because of the excess boom resulting from being in the Euro;
- as a small country they did better than say Iceland by being part of the Euro, so their currency and borrowing abilities did not suffer: but this is irrelevant to the issues of European governance raised in the treaty;
- being part of Europe (as opposed to the Euro) has not helped them at all in recovering from the problems. Ireland has done much itself in terms of working out how to sort out its banks and reduce public spending - far more than say the UK and indeed most other European countries.

But all that's irrelevant to what should the UK, and specifically the Tories, do now. Commentators have suggested that a yes vote would be a major problem for them, because they will have to be more specific about how they will deal with Europe. And many Labour and Lib Dem supporting commentators will hope that they will be riven with internal arguments as a result. I suspect some anti-Cameron Tories will hope the same.

This need not happen: the Tories must be controlled in their response.

First, although the Irish vote makes it more likely that the constitution will be ratified before a UK election, Poland and the Czech Republic still need to do so. There's no immediate need to change the policy: Labour and the Lib Dems reneged on their commitment to offer referendum on the Constitution, we won't.

Second, they need to avoid too much emotion about the wrong issues:

- It will be very frustrating if Blair becomes European President. But apart from having to watch him on TV more, it shouldn't matter too much; his new Middle East role confirms his ability to talk a lot and deliver little. If he is President of Europe, he is more likely to damage the European Union rather than the countries within it;

- Much of our complaints in the UK about Europe stem from how we negotiate and then implement European legislation, rather than the legislation itself. Many things should sensibly be handled at a European level - but many shouldn't. (Lightbulbs?) We need to build the management of European legislation into our Parliamentary processes - unlike Denmark, say, their is no Parliamentary scrutiny of forthcoming legislation until after it has been negotiated. The time to review it is at the beginning of the process, when constructive input will be welcomed and where exceptions can be negotiated. The Tories should focus on improving how we handle legislation within the UK rather than supporting generic complaints;

- If the constitution is ratified before the election then there is no point in having a referendum just on that issue: it has been ratified and we will be bound by it;

- There's no point in having a bland "should we leave the EU" referendum because the answer is clear - no we shouldn't; there's no chance of a majority for leaving and any other question is not specific enough to be asked simply.

So apart from improving UK handling of legislation - and don't underestimate how important that would be - there must be a medium term (ie in the life of the first Parliament) commitment to re-assess how the EU is working and how Britain should relate to it, followed by a Parliamentary debate on whether there needs to be a referendum on any EU issue, and what the question would be. This has to be a soft commitment because the new processes are untried and it's unclear what the outcome will be. And there's no point in being too specific on international negotiations because you shouldn't tie your hands too much.

My suspicion is that the best result for the UK and for the EU would be a formal move to a two-speed Europe; those countries that wish to integrate more can, those that don't needn't.

Apologies for the length of this - but I think its an important topic and one where there will be a lot of pressure trying to derail the Tories.

1 comment:

Troy said...

A great topic for your quarterly blog. The Irish vote marks a very sad day for democracy in Europe. I'm not totally convinced that we couldn't muster a majority to pull out if the EU is debated honestly and frankly.
Shame the fate of an entire continent rests on the shoulders of ahandful of Czechs now.
I suspect the whole thing will end in bloodshed 20 years down the line.