So, the deal’s been done – and it would be rather amiss of a blog focussing on European politics not to have another quick look, even though we’ve all known this was pretty much inevitable for months now. The only real wildcard was Poland – once they got placated, nothing was going to be allowed to get in the way. So now the only question is will the people of Europe (by which I mean us dear Brits) kick up enough of a fuss before the formal signing to throw a final spanner in the works of a treaty that’s been almost a decade in the making? (The reform treaty, after all, is designed to rectify the self same problems that 2001’s Treaty of Nice was originally supposed to solve…)
Matthew Parris gets it pretty much spot on on the whole issue of a UK referendum. He’s very good indeed on why suggesting a referendum in the first place was a fundamentally silly and unnecessary idea (like many of those from the government over the last decade, in fact), before going on:
“itâ€™s my belief that though you can get some of the British angry about constitutional questions for some of the time, and a few of them angry for most of the time, you will never get many of them angry for much of the time. We are not hugely interested in constitutions. Thatâ€™s why we donâ€™t have one. We tend to drift away from arguments about abstract reasoning.”
A very vocal minority of EU-sceptics would have us believe that ordinary men and women on the street genuinely care about loss of sovereignty, or about being called “citizens” as well as “subjects”. Yet the vast majority simply don’t care.
What most people care about is how much money they’ve got in the bank, not strange arguments about whether decisions are best taken at a national or European level – because most people have just about as much connection to and understanding of what goes on in Westminster and Whitehall as they do the workings of the EU. (Plus, if you start getting het up about Brussels passing laws without sufficient scrutiny, sooner or later you’re going to have to face the fact that this happens in Westminster far more often than in Brussels. If you start arguing that the EU is too far removed from the people of Britain to take decisions for them, you’ll end up with people in Yorkshire or Cornwall asking why a bunch of people in London should have a say over their lives.)
As Parris notes, you ask people if they want a say, they’ll say yes whether they really care or know about an issue or not. That’s where the support for the referendum has come from. But now that the reform treaty is a done deal, the momentum will fade. If Gordon can last out to the formal signing next year, public interest will have drooped so significantly that everyone will instead be wondering what all the fuss was about. As Mark Mardell points out, Brown “calculates that while the Conservatives’ charge that he doesnâ€™t trust the people may do some short-term damage, it’s unlikely to still be hurting him come the time for an election”.
And so the EU project continues its sluggish reform. Because despite the whoops and yells from the usual suspects, the reform treaty if anything reduces the EU’s ability to further integrate. Yes, qualified majority voting is extended in some areas, but so is the ability of the European Parliament – and national parliaments – to influence legislation, and – for the first time – it brings in ways for member states to actually leave the union. The proverbial six of one, half a dozen of the other.
Because, you see, that’s what happens when you try and get a compromise between 27 different interest groups on a document designed in committee – the end result is bland and uninspiring, with little of any real substance or radicalism about it. Which is precisely why opponents of the EU have had to shift the argument on to the referendum issue – a simpler, easier to understand issue on which everyone thinks they know what they’re talking about, and about which it’s a lot easier to get excited than a massively long legal text that hardly anyone really understands, and that’s deliberately so vague it can be interpreted in any number of ways.
(Apologies for the lack of posts here of late – they’ve all been going up at dliberation, where I’ve spent the last few days trying to do statistical analysis to work out the representativeness of the Tomorrow’s Europe poll, and increasingly coming to the opinion that the EU will never and probably should never be a democracy… On which more, no doubt, later…)