The Treaty of Nice, currently being drafted, and intended for signature in December 2000 by the EU Heads of Government at the end of the French Presidency, represents a yet further massive move towards the creation of a United States of Europe. Major additional centralising changes are in prospect. These include a further large extension of majority voting; the establishment of a Euro-constitution with judges to enforce it; the creation of a "legal personality" for the EU, thus enabling it to take over its Member States' seats at the United Nations, the International Monetary Fund, and at other international organisations; more powers giving the EU a direct role in defence policy and the ability to create and control its own police force; and - perhaps most sinister of all - highly undemocratic steps to deprive political parties which do not share this vision of the EU's future with funding, and perhaps the right to exist at all.
Some of the detailed proposals have come from the European Parliament and others from the Commission. They reflect the widely held consensus among many Member States - or at least their political leaders, though very frequently not their electorates at large - that the only way ahead has to be the creation of a unitary state, encompassing the whole of the EU area, leaving the former Member States as mere provinces of a centralised political and bureaucratic power structure in Brussels. Hardly surprisingly, those with most to gain from such a development - the European Parliament, the Commission, ambitious politicians, hungry for a big stage upon which to operate, and the EU bureaucracy - are most in favour. Those much less enthusiastic about this project comprise most other people, including highly sceptical majorities in many EU Member States as well as Britain.
When Britain joined the Common Market, which has now evolved into the European Union, we were constantly assured that we had a veto on developments which did not suit us, thus enabling Britain to shape and control the extent to which our institutions became merged into, and subservient to, those of the EU. Steadily, however, whatever veto powers we ever really had have been whittled away. At Nice, they are to be almost totally abolished. Now nearly everything is to be decided by majority vote, the only exceptions being "decisions of a constitutional nature", such as those on enlargement of the Union by admitting new Members, where our vital interests are unlikely to be involved. The result will be the enforcement in Britain of EU policies on tax, defence, border controls, industrial and trade policy - and just about everything else.
In Britain, there has always been a strong presumption that the state exists for the benefit of its citizens. On the continent, the Roman Law tradition has it the other way round - and a new set of "rights", enforceable in the courts here as well as there, is on the agenda at Nice, reflecting a very different view from that of the British Common Law. Coupled with the so-called Corpus Juris proposals, designed to provide a uniform EU wide legal framework, the days are likely to be numbered for the presumption of innocence, trial by jury, and Habeas Corpus - rights and safeguards which the British people have cherished for hundreds of years. The outcome is going to be a major change in the way the legal system works in Britain, which may not be perfect, but whose openness, lack of corruption and independence from political control have served us well for generations.
At present, Britain still has a major international role, enabling us to exercise considerable influence and leverage on the world stage in our own right. We have a permanent seat at the United Nations Security Council. We represent ourselves at the International Monetary Fund and at the Group of Eight Industrial Nations. We occupy a pivotal position in the Commonwealth. All of this is in danger of being eroded away. The intention of the proponents of the Nice Treaty is for the EU to take over from its Member States the right to represent them on all international bodies, as it has done already on trade negotiations. Even if our interests always coincided with those of other EU Members, many would prefer Britain to retain an independent voice in the world of international negotiations. In fact, however, on a whole range of issues, British interests and concerns are not the same as those of the majority of the rest of the EU. Our trading relations, energy resources, military capacity, agriculture, investment patterns - let alone our history and language - all provide a different and generally contrasting perspective to those of our continental neighbours. In these circumstances, where is the benefit to us in giving up the power to represent ourselves, and to fight for our own corner.
Britain has a long and unbroken tradition of firm political control over its generally small but professional defence forces, and of a devolved police structure, organised regionally rather than nationally, and thus difficult for an unscrupulous government to manipulate. Particularly against the background of these sensitivities, we have been reassured for decades that the EU was not going to assume a centralised role in either defence or police matters. Now, however, it is proposed that all of this should change too, with an embryo euro-army being established, matched by the expansion of Europol, the EU's own police force, equipped with sweeping investigatory powers completely alien to those to which we are accustomed. There is little doubt, once they have been created, that the existence of EU wide military and police capabilities is going to be used as another strong argument for centralising yet more power in Brussels.
Perhaps more alarming in a way than anything else are the proposals coming to Nice to deal with those who do not share the vision of those trying to bring to fruition their vision of a centralised and bureaucratic EU unitary state. It is now suggested that "political parties which do not respect democratic principles and fundamental rights may be the subject of suspension proceedings". As a letter to the Commission President, Romano Prodi, from the leaders of the four main political groupings in the European Parliament made clear, "respect for democratic principles" does not mean what you might think it does. Their interpretation is that any political party which does not share their consensus about the promotion of the European project may be rated as "undemocratic", and thus liable for legal and financial penalties, and possibly exclusion altogether from the political process. Nothing could illustrate more clearly how deeply lacking in genuine democratic instincts many of the EU's political leaders really are.
There is overwhelming evidence that being involved in further major moves towards a unitary European super-state is the last thing which most members of the British public want. On the contrary, recent polls have shown that about one third of the electorate would vote for coming out of the EU altogether, given an opportunity to do so, while some two thirds oppose joining the euro - the other main initiative currently in train designed to shift political power away from the EU Member States, and to transfer it to Brussels. This is not because the British people are insular or nationalistic. Indeed, they like travelling to the continent, and frequently do so on holiday or for other reasons. Many of them have either worked or have friends there. They want to build close relations with other European countries in every way in which it makes sense to do so. They respect and enjoy Europe's huge spread of cultural achievements. They like the variety and diversity which exists across the continent. Above all, they want to maintain the peaceful relationships which have been established over the last half century. At the same time, the British people do not want to give up their self governing democracy, their independence and their traditions.
The starting point is that the present government has absolutely no mandate for agreeing the proposed terms of the Nice Treaty. On the contrary, in a highly publicised article in The Sun just before the 1997 election, the Prime Minister roundly declared that "New Labour will have no truck with a European superstate. We will fight for Britain's interests and to keep our independence every inch of the way." The Labour manifesto promised "Retention of the national veto over key matters of national interest such as taxation, defence and security, immigration, decisions over the budget and treaty changes". It is exactly these commitments which are in danger of being broken.
This is the point at which we now have to take a stand. If the Nice Treaty goes ahead, and the majority of powers by which we are governed pass outside our control, we really are going to reach the stage where Britain ceases to be an independent democratic country. This is not what the British people want, not what the Labour government was elected to achieve, and most certainly not what the electorate is likely to endorse and support at the next general election. This is why we call on all trades union and Labour Party activists, and everyone else in the country who shares our views on this issue, to campaign against all these developments with all the vigour we can muster while there is still time. A great deal is at stake. This is a battle which has to be won. If the issues are as important as this, and the proposals to be considered at Nice are as radical as it appears that they may be, a major change in our constitutional balance is in prospect. If this is so, there is also a critical question of democratic legitimacy. In these circumstances, there must be an overwhelming case for a referendum to allow the people to decide whether or not this is the future they want.