When Europhiles are asked about their views on the proposed EU Constitution, all too often their standard response is to assure us that it will limit the powers of the Brussels Commission, that it will repatriate decision taking to National governments, and that it will cement in place the determination of the political elite in the EU not to construct a United States of Europe. On the continent of Europe, on the contrary, everyone knows - and all politicians openly declare - that the intentions behind the Constitution are precisely the reverse. There, it is taken for granted that the Constitution is an important building block in the process of producing a more integrated and centralised rival to the USA. It is because there is hardly a single British politician who is prepared to argue in favour of what is really happening in the European Union, that so much of the debate in Britain about the future of the EU is so unreal. British Europhiles are doing the electorate here no favours by pretending that the Constitution is intended to devolve power to the nation state when in fact it is designed to do exactly the opposite.
Over the three decades since Britain joined the Common Market, far from any attempts to wrest power back from Brussels being successful, there has been a relentless increase in the powers of the Commission at the expense of the British Parliament and other Member States' National Assemblies. Nowadays, nearly all the legislation covering commerce and industry, social and labour policies, the environment, agriculture and fisheries, not to mention immigration and the control of our borders, emanates from the EU. So does a substantial proportion of the jurisdiction over foreign aid, justice and home affairs, foreign and security policy and much else. No EU law has ever been successfully overturned by Parliament, making parliamentary scrutiny of EU legislation an almost total waste of time. The "Acquis Communautaire" convention, whereby any power taken by Brussels is never returned to national parliaments, makes sure that the accrual of authority in the Commission proceeds cumulatively and that it will continue to do so. Already, more than half of all new legislation in Britain originates in Brussels. Nothing in the new Constitution will stop this happening.
A major feature of the EU is that elected politicians have no capacity to initiate legislation. This is the exclusive competence of the unelected Commission. The result is that none of the usual hard-won democratic checks on self serving behaviour by high officials, too often shading into outright corruption, are in place. This is the fundamental reason why fraud within the EU institutions has become endemic, with some 10% of the EU budget unaccounted for every year. It is hardly surprising, in these circumstances, that the EU's own internal auditors have refused to sign off its accounts for the last ten years. At the same time, those brave enough to be whistle-blowers are rubbished, demoted and sacked. The shameful lack of control over expenses among members of the European Parliament means that the only people who are directly elected are impotent to take effective action against corruption elsewhere in the EU governing bodies.
There is little doubt that much of the original impetus for the establishment of the Common Market, which has developed into the European Union, was the legacy of the two world wars which disfigured European history during the first half of the twentieth century. As it is almost unheard of for one democracy to declare war on another, it is not the EU which has been the cause of peace in Europe. It has been NATO which has largely been responsible for this state of affairs.
Balanced against the disadvantages of the type of organisation into which the EU has developed, as seen from perspective of the vast majority of the British people, are there compensating economic advantages which might persuade a majority of the electorate to put up with them? It is hardly likely. The cost of membership to Britain is huge - and much higher than many people realise. Careful estimates have put the current cost at about œ40bn a year - about 4% of Britain's entire national income. Included in this figure are the very substantial direct costs of membership in the form of the sum we pay to Brussels every year, less whatever is paid back to us, often for projects which are not our top priority. In recent years our net contribution has been running at about œ4bn a year, rising to almost œ5bn in 2003, with recent Treasury estimates showing a further sharply rising trend. Higher British net contributions are likely both as a result of pressure both to increase the total size of the EU budget and to phase down the British rebate negotiated by Baroness Thatcher at Fontainebleau in 1984. Even the very large sums paid over each year by Britain, however, very probably substantially underestimate the real cost of membership which also has to take into account the reduction in our economic growth rate resulting from the burdens of EU membership. Although more difficult to quantify accurately, these costs are likely to be cumulatively even larger than those incurred in current terms every year.
Another offsetting factor might be if it could be maintained that the EU had policies for particular sections of the economy which were notably more efficient and effective than home grown varieties were likely to be. The fact that almost half of the EU's budget is still spent on the Common Agricultural Policy, and its misbegotten sibling the Common Fisheries Policy, shows that this cannot be right. The CAP does little to help small scale farmers but enormously benefits rich agribusinesses. It costs the average family in the EU about œ20 a week. It does enormous damage to Third World farmers. The CFP is even worse leading, as it has, to the almost total destruction of the British fishing industry and an ecological disaster in what used to be some of the richest fishing grounds in the world round the British coast. It is very hard indeed to make a case for saying that we would not be far better off if we were to have control over both these policies repatriated to the British Parliament.
Almost every regulation emerging from the EU benefits some people. This is not, however, the test which needs to be applied. The crucial issue is whether the benefit to those who gain is sufficient to offset the costs incurred by everyone else. Once this test is applied, there is unequivocal evidence from government sources that, on balance, the costs of regulations, most of which come from the EU, are much higher than the benefits. Recent estimates for the UK economy, validated by similar results found in other EU countries such as The Netherlands, suggest that the cumulative net cost of all the regulations introduced in recent decades now comes to about œ20bn per annum - about 2% of the national income. This is another huge burden which we would not have to bear, at least to the same extent, if we had more democratic control over what those responsible for our governance were doing in our names.
Another alarming aspect of our EU Membership is the extent to which it ties us to a block of countries which are clearly heading for very serious demographic problems. The birth rate in much of the EU is so low that the population is both rapidly aging and starting to fall in size at the same time. These twin factors are precipitating a pensions crisis on the one hand and a massive economic problem on the other, as towns and cities begin to contract and much of the social capital becomes redundant. Inward migration, on the scale needed to make up the deficit in the indigenous population is very unlikely to produce an acceptable solution.
Meanwhile, mainly because of the economic policies into which the eurozone was locked by the Maastricht Treaty, the Single Currency economies continue to languish. The Stability and Growth Pact hobbles fiscal stimulation. The rigid remit of the European Central Bank to hold down inflation without regard to the impact this may have on growth and unemployment, precludes monetary expansion. The combined effect of these misguided policies has been to turn the eurozone into the developed world's poorest performing region, plagued with persistently high levels of unemployment - 5.2 m people are out of work in Germany alone - and with little prospect of improved performance in the foreseeable future.
It is against this background that the debate on the proposed new Constitution, and the referendum to be held on it probably in 2006, become so important. The referendum, in particular, is going to provide the British people with a major opportunity to reverse our involvement in the way the EU has developed and is evolving, which is not what the vast majority of the UK electorate wish to see. A "yes" vote will lock us into the building of a European state on the lines which most continental politicians - if not their electorates - want to have created. A "no" vote will provide Britain with the space and opportunity to carve out our own way to the future. Both politically and economically, the integrationist EU model looks less and less attractive. The need now is to seize the opportunity provided by the Constitution referendum to channel this dissatisfaction into a positive programme for Britain's future.