The agreement reached by the Heads of State in June this year on the proposed EU Constitution generally marks another step towards the centralised European state to which so many members of the political class in Member States aspire. It substantially increases the powers of the Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court of Justice vis … vis the EU nation states. It leaves open the possibility that some Member States can proceed faster than others on integration. It greatly increases the scope of Qualified Majority Voting. Some of the more extreme federalising proposals were resisted and Britain succeeded in securing at least a temporary reprieve on some of the "red line" issues, on which such store had been laid, particularly tax, criminal justice, defence and asylum policy. How easy it will be to hold the line on these issues if the Constitution is ratified, however, remains to be seen. To the chagrin of Germany and France, it was clear that the Accession Countries have strong views about the future which diverge from those of some of the key founder Member States of the EU. There is little doubt, however, that on balance the Constitution marks a major rearguard action by Old Europe to enhance the existing power structure and to resist changes which most people and many of the new EU Member States want.
Although the Laeken Declaration, from which the proposed Constitution stemmed, was supposed to make the EU institutions more democratic and accessible, the proposals agreed have the opposite effect. No powers of any significance are to be devolved back to national parliaments from Brussels. On the contrary, a combination of large increases in Qualified Majority Voting, the increased scope for judicial interpretation by the European Court of Justice as the Charter of Fundamental Rights is incorporated into the Constitution, and new powerful federal positions such as the proposed President of the European Council, are all bound to strengthen the centre against the periphery. The veto is to go in about 30 policy areas and the European Parliament is to be given more powers vis … vis national governments. Brussels is to have more control over criminal justice, immigration, asylum and migrant workers. There is to be an EU public prosecutor, heading up an emerging EU wide criminal justice system, which is likely to have a major impact on traditional British ways of administering justice, including habeas corpus and the jury system. The EU is to have its own legal personality and ability to sign treaties on its own account, without having first secured the agreement of Member States. On a number of major issues, especially to do with economic policy, the position is far from being as clear cut as the British government would have us believe. For example, on taxation, despite the derogations agreed, Article 14 states that "The Union shall adopt measures to ensure the co-ordination of the economic policies of the Member States, in particular by adopting broad guidelines for these policies. The Member States shall co-ordinate their economic policies with the Union." Furthermore, the Constitution still contains the words "The currency of the Union shall be the euro", with all that this may entail for future pressure on Britain to join the Single Currency.
The agreement reached on the Constitution took place, however, only days after elections right across the EU which clearly showed much higher degrees of scepticism about the unfolding EU project than had ever been seen before. Not only was the turnout in the elections to the European Parliament even lower than it had been previously, but the vote for eurosceptic parties was much higher. Furthermore, it is clear that many of the Accession Countries are opposed to many of the policies favoured by the longer standing Member States. The new members are more Atlanticist, recognising that the USA had far more to do with the collapse of Soviet communism than the EU. The generally disadvantageous economic terms on which they have joined the EU are becoming increasingly obvious. They are extremely concerned about losing competitiveness as a result of having inappropriate regulatory and taxation policies imposed on them. There is thus, in a number of important respects, an increasing gap between the centralising thrust of the Constitution and the increasing diversity of interest among the Member States, now 25 in number, which makes "one size fits all" policies and institutions less and less appropriate.
The formal legal position is generally thought to be that the Constitution which was agreed by the EU leaders in June 2004 cannot be implemented until it has been ratified by all 25 Member States, though it is not clear that this is going to be the case. Until ratification has been achieved, the operational framework of the EU is supposed to remain as it is, though steps already are being taken, for example, to create an EU wide diplomatic service - a matter of highly questionable legality - in advance of the Constitution coming into effect. Getting all the Member States to ratify the Constitution is likely to take a considerable period of time, probably about two years, if it can be done at all. If the process of agreeing the Constitution was to be left solely to national parliaments, dominated almost everywhere by politicians who, out of either conviction or self interest, are likely to be prone to voting it through, there might not be too much of a problem for the Constitution's proponents. The situation, however, is not so easy for them. Many countries have agreed that a referendum should be held on the Constitution, either because this was forced upon them by their electorates, as effectively happened in Britain, or because of a genuine belief that the Constitution needs to have democratic legitimacy.
At least eleven countries have definite plans to hold a referendum on the Constitution. These are Belgium, Britain, the Czech Republic, Denmark, France Ireland, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, Poland, Portugal and Spain. Others, such as Italy, may do so too. It is far from clear that majorities in favour are going to be attained everywhere. Even in heartland countries such as the Netherlands, the vote, currently scheduled for the end of 2004, is by no means certain to be favourable to the Constitution. In other more eurosceptic countries, such as Poland and Britain, the result is even less likely to be positive. If one or two small countries failed to ratify the Constitution, it is likely that they could be forced either to hold more ballots until an affirmative result was achieved or their vote could be ignored. If, however, a significant number of countries fail to vote in favour of it, particularly if this includes one or two major Member States such as Britain, the position would be much more uncertain.
The referendum to be held in Britain is therefore likely to be particularly crucial. With opinion polls as they are, it is unlikely to be held at least until after the next general election and possibly not until 2006. The crucial issue, therefore, is going to be the way in which public opinion moves over this period. There are a number of reasons for believing that the present high level of opposition - roughly two to one in favour of rejection - is likely to be maintained despite the propaganda onslaught to which we will no doubt be subjected by those favouring ratification. The performance of the EU economy, compared to elsewhere, shows little sign of being likely to improve. There is an impending row looming over the British rebate to the EU budget, which is likely to cement opposition. Developments in the EU, requiring more diversity, may well expose the centralising tendency of the proposed Constitution to be increasingly inappropriate. There is likely to be a well financed and well organised campaign for a "no" vote, supported by most of the press. Is the outcome, therefore, highly likely to be a negative vote? There probably will be a "no" result, but no-one should assume that this will necessarily be the outcome and it is important to understand why this could come about.
Britain politics as regards the EU is in a curious state. All the polls show massive opposition to Britain joining the euro and rejection of the Constitution at almost the same level. Yet, if there had not been a commitment given that a referendum would be held on the euro, we would almost certainly be in the Single Currency by now. Furthermore, if there were to be a vote in the Commons on the Constitution in the near future, it is likely that it would go through with a large majority. These circumstances have arisen because the policies advocated by the main political parties in Britain simply do not reflect the views of most of the electorate on EU issues. This dangerous situation then opens up the possibility that the terms on which a referendum on the Constitution would be fought would not be on the merits of the case for and against it being adopted. The ground would be shifted to the referendum being effectively on whether or not Britain should be a member of the EU at all. This could happen if those who do not believe that any arrangements between Britain and the countries on the Continent is workable were effectively to join forces with those in favour of the EU, with both groups saying that rejection of the Constitution would necessarily involve Britain ceasing to be an EU member. The result could then be sufficient fear of the unknown to produce a majority in favour of the Constitution either out of conviction or as the least worst outcome.
Surely, those of us who want to see Britain allowed to pursue its long-standing self-governing and democratic traditions, unconstrained by Brussels, need to be aware of this danger. To achieve the outcomes we want for the future, we therefore need a united campaign to make sure that the Constitution presently on offer is not ratified, focusing on this objective while not allowing ourselves to be distracted and divided by other wider issues. A majority of UK citizens now appear to believe that Britain ought not to be in the EU at all or, at the least, that our relations with the other countries in the EU should be on a completely different footing from those which currently prevail. This is why the next major step towards producing the much looser and flexible but co-operative relationships we want with other countries in Europe must be to concentrate on ensuring that the centralising Constitution now on offer does not get adopted.