The House of Commons spent 12 days at the end of February and the early part of March 2008 debating the Lisbon Treaty which, as everyone knows, very largely encapsulates the proposals for the EU Constitution which were rejected by the French and the Dutch in May and June 2005. While the debate took up a substantial amount of parliamentary time, this was to almost no useful purpose at all. The British Parliament - like all the other national assemblies in the EU - has no effective power whatever to amend the Lisbon Treaty. All it can do is to accept or reject the text presented to it in total. The only really significant step it could have taken would have been to vote to hold a referendum on whether the Treaty should be accepted or not. Unfortunately, the House of Commons did not do this. Instead, the Labour Party imposed a three line whip which only 29 Labour members were willing to ignore. With the Lib Dems split, there was no chance of a majority in favour of a referendum being achieved, even with Conservative support. Despite the fact that almost every single member of the House of Commons had been elected on a platform promising a referendum on the EU Constitution proposals, if they were to be adopted, the vast majority of Labour MPs welshed on this commitment. There is still a chance that the House of Lords will pass an amendment calling for a referendum, which the Commons would then have to reconsider, but the chances of the Lisbon Treaty not being passed by Parliament now look slim.
The implications of the Treaty on the way Britain is governed in future are very substantial indeed. Since nearly all the changes proposed in the original EU Constitution are to be enacted, there will be a further very significant transfer of powers from Westminster to Brussels. Qualified Majority Voting (QMV) is to replace decision taking arrangements previously subject to veto in about 60 areas. New posts are to be created, particularly an EU President and (in all but name) Foreign Minister, with wide ranging powers. The EU Commission is to be entrusted with much greater responsibilities over a large swathe of policy areas, including transport, public health, sport, energy, asylum and immigration, space and science policy, not to mention the EU's annual budget. The role of the European Parliament is to be strengthened. Brussels is to attain greater powers to operate on an EU wide rather than national scale functions ranging from the further development of EU defence forces to a supranational police and prosecution service. Nor does the Lisbon Treaty confine itself only to the proposals in the Constitution. New powers for the Commission have been slid into the current text which were not there before. One of the more significant is a provision which greatly strengthens its role in space which, in turn, is now already being used to justify the EU taxpayer spending billions of euros on the Galileo global positioning system. There is therefore no doubt at all that the Lisbon Treaty marks another major step in road towards the creation of a centralised EU state.
However significant all these changes are going to be, they might not be so important if the political leadership in the rest of the EU had broadly the same aims as those reflected by the opinions of most people in Britain. Unfortunately, however, it is clear that over a wide range of policies, this condition is not fulfilled. The more that British sovereignty is dissolved away and replaced by EU decision taking, the more impossibly difficult it becomes for the future to be determined in the way in which most British people want. Almost no-one in the UK supports the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) - and still less the Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) - yet the more we move in the Lisbon Treaty direction, the less chance there is of getting any major changes to either of these obnoxious regimes. In trading terms, British policy has for a long time been much more outward looking than those favoured on the continent - less protectionist, more open and more geared to helping the Third World, which has been one of the Labour government's real success stories. In general, the thrust of British policy has been less interventionist and less orientated to centrally driven regulation than on the continent, which is why the flood of directives from Brussels covering almost every aspect of our lives seems to be more resented in the UK than elsewhere. Over all these facets of the way we are governed, we will now have even less control than we had before.
Another major implication of the Lisbon Treaty is that it will lock us ever more securely into the extremely heavy financial costs there are to the UK of being an EU Member State. We already contribute net expenditure to the EU budget at the rate of about £5bn a year, although this figure is set to rise sharp - as we move towards 2013 and beyond, as a result of the settlement reached in Brussels in December 2005. Off budget contributions to EU institutions add nearly another net £2bn a year - which may well also rise over coming years. The CAP costs us about £15bn a year and the CFP perhaps £2.5bn. Excessive regulation - mostly emanating from Brussels - cost us about 2% of GDP, maybe £30bn a year. On top of these recurrent costs , the burdens of EU membership may well have reduced our growth rate by up to 0.5% per annum in recent years, imposing a further heavy drain on our economic performance. As the condition of our public finances deteriorates and the economy slows, the impact to these extremely heavy costs can only become more apparent. What do Labour MPs, who campaign against the relatively trivial cost of keeping open local post office, make of such vast sums draining out of our economy? As the curbs on public expenditure tighten, how do they think the situation is helped by Britain paying across the exchanges to the Brussels bureaucracy a net sum of about £20m a day - a figure which is set relentlessly to rise as the next general election approaches?
In the long run, the biggest loss of all which the British people are set to suffer as a result of the Lisbon Treaty is likely to be the erosion of our democracy and our consequent inability to hold those in positions of power to account. While the Member States making up the EU may be democracies, the EU itself is in no way a democratic organisation. Far too much power rests with the Commission, the European Central Bank and the EU Court of Justice, all staffed by people who have never had to get themselves elected. The European Parliament is no more than a consultative assembly with no power to form or dismiss a government, which is the hallmark of all national assemblies. There is no way that in these circumstances the electorates in Europe can make real choices as to how they are to be governed. In this kind of environment, it is hardly surprising that corruption flourishes, further alienating the governed from their rulers. Perhaps most surprising of all, however, is the carelessness with which MPs seem to be prepared to allow their legislative and executive powers - the result of centuries of democratic evolution - to be mulcted away, leaving them with less and less influence over the future of the electorate for which they are responsible.
How have we managed to get into the present predicament, which is clearly not what most people in the UK desire? Poll after poll shows that the vast majority of British people want free trade with other countries in Europe. They want to travel and perhaps to live there. They like and appreciate the rich variety of European culture and experience. They know that they have much in common with other people in Europe. They do not, however, want to become a province in a centralised European state. They favour international co-operation wherever this makes sense but they prefer this to be done on an inter-governmental basis. In all these respects, their aspirations mirror that of other peoples all over the world. The outcome they are now being offered, however, is not this but something very different. The reality is that for a generation and more the British people have never been given the chance to choose. This situation has come about because there has never been a time, at least since the 1975 referendum, when the British people have been given a chance to express their views on whether Britain should reaffirm its membership of an organisation which has evolved into something very different from the one we originally joined. Even in 1975, the choice was blurred by the fact that the referendum was held not before but after we had already become a member of the Common Market. Ever since then, the moves towards a more centralised European state have been incremental. With the Single European Act, the Treaties at Nice, Maastricht Amsterdam and now Lisbon, all the changes have allowed the government of the day to treat them as being too small to warrant the electorate being consulted. The result is that the huge cumulative changes that have taken place have been masked by each step along the way not being big enough by itself to generate the dissent which would have manifested itself if all the proposed changes had been presented at once. It is this subtle approach, designed from the beginning of the European project, to undermine the nation state which has been so successful. So too has been the strategy of leaving all the familiar trappings of the nation state - its parliament or national assembly, its civil service and its judicial system - substantially in place while what each of them is controlled less and less at national level and more an more by Brussels.
Where will all these trends take us over the coming decades? It is hard to believe that the centralising process exemplified by the Lisbon Treaty will be capped where it is now. It seems much more likely that this is going to turn out to be just another step along the road to the United States of Europe to which so large a proportion of the EU political elite aspire. Perhaps the British people will shrug their shoulders and accept their lot if this happens. If they do, however, they will be bucking the trend seen all over the world where it is the nation state and not super-national structures which, in the end, have prevailed. Time will tell. Perhaps, on the other hand, the worm will turn. It is hard now to remember how solid and enduring the Soviet Union looked right up to the time of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In the end, all political institutions have to rest on consent to survive. It remains to be seen whether the reluctant consent which currently prevails will sooner or later be undermined by events, leading to the conclusion that we have been asked to put up with too much and that radical changes are needed. The bigger the gap between what the British people want and what their political leadership foists upon them, the more likely eventually this must be to happen.