The decision by the Lib Dems to have a three line whip in the House of Lords on the Lisbon Treaty means that the chances of there being a majority in the Lords in favour of rejecting the Lisbon Treaty are now very low. On the crucial issue of whether there should be a referendum on the Treaty, the outcome is now not, however, quite so bleak as a result of legal action - successful so far, in its initial stages -which is being taken to compel the government to hold a referendum. The House of Commons has nevertheless already voted in favour of the Treaty and against a referendum. The only other significant remaining hurdle within the EU before all Member States have ratified the Treaty is the referendum to be held in Ireland at the end of May this year. Unlike the UK, Ireland has benefited very substantially economically and in other ways from EU membership, so the chances of the Treaty being rejected there are not high, although no doubt there will be a vigorous "no" campaign. Regrettably, therefore, it appears that the Treaty will still probably go through exactly as the European political elite intended that it should.
The implementation of the Treaty is no tidying up exercise, as it was once most misleadingly described as being. Like the other treaties which preceded it over the last two decades - at Maastricht, Nice and Amsterdam - it involves very significant further transfers of power away from the nation state towards the EU institutions. The big gainer is the self appointed and unelected Commission at the expense of national parliaments and assemblies. The European Parliament wins extra powers. Two powerful new executive roles are created in the President of the Union, who will be in place for much longer than at present, and an EU Foreign Minister in all but name. There will be a European Public Prosecutor with powers to match. The veto disappears in over 60 areas, to be replaced by Qualified Majority Voting (QMV). Executive powers over a very wide range of policy areas are to be further transferred from national to EU level, including transport, public health, sport, energy, asylum and immigration, space and science policy and even preparation of the EU's annual budget. The Commission is to have an increasing role in economic co-ordination and employment policies. The EU is now intended to have a significant military capacity, capable of being exercised outside the existing NATO structure. These are not minor changes. Taken together all these measures are major steps towards the creation of a United States of Europe, deliberately designed by many on the continent to rival the USA. The Lisbon Treaty is another milestone along this road as the power of the nation states in Europe is stealthily further eroded away - a process which the political elite consistently avoids putting to the democratic test, because they know it would not pass.
Is this intended to be the end of the process of weakening authority of the Member States and strengthening the EU centre? It is extremely unlikely. Future integrationist measures, however, will not require the same ratification process as did the Lisbon Treaty and its predecessors. One of the more sinister aspects of the Lisbon Treaty was that it opened up the way to new measures being taken with a much simpler and easier administrative process for transferring powers and responsibilities than has been required up to now. There may well, therefore, not be any more formal treaties but the results will be the same. The current Treaty has implemented all the important proposals in the Constitution which was rejected by the French and Dutch in May and June 2005. Accordingly, the way now appears to be clear ahead for the continued gradual erosion of all the EU's national institutions as power centres in Brussels.
Will this process see a dramatic change in the way our affairs appear to be conducted? Probably not. We will still have parliament, a legal system, and a civil service, as we always have had. The difference is that all of them will have lost much of their autonomy and most of their powers. Already, by some accounts, 80% of the legislative initiatives taken now originate in Brussels. Our legal system will be implementing EU laws. The civil services will be largely operating at the behest of Brussels rather than Westminster. This is all part of a process which has been going on ever since what is now the EU came into being shortly after the end of World War II. leaving everything looking very similar to what it was before while below the surface seismic changes in the way our affairs are really run and who runs them take place.
Is this all really that significant, or does life continue for most people very much as it would have done anyway? Does it really make that much difference whether our lives are controlled from Brussels or Westminster? For much of the time, however real the differences are, they are hard to see, which is why our relationship with the EU is not such a crucially important issue for most people as it might otherwise be. The reality, however, is that the way our affairs would be run if we were not EU members would be very significantly different. We would not be in the Common Agricultural or the Common Fisheries Policies. We would not have to pay very large sums of money net across the exchanges to Brussels every year. We would not, unless we wanted to do so for some particular purpose, have to be part of a European army. We could run our own trade and foreign policies, which would certainly be much more helpful to the Third World than those espoused by the EU. Above all, we could revert to being in control of our own affairs again, with the government consisting of people elected by universal suffrage, and thus accountable for what they do to those who voted them in and who can vote them out.
It is quite possible that there will never be enough concern about the way the EU is developing for there ever to be a major revolt against it either in Britain or elsewhere among Member States. This has been the history of the EU so far. Whenever the electorate has tried to throw over the traces - with the referendum that went against the Maastricht Treaty in Denmark in 1992, or over the Nice Treaty in Ireland in 2001, for example - the EU has been in a strong enough position to insist on further votes being taken to reverse those held previously. When the French and Dutch voted against the Constitution, almost exactly the same proposals were brought forward in the Lisbon Treaty and look like being implemented in full. Perhaps this process will continue. There are, however, a number of fault lines which could prove much more difficult for Brussels to control. It is far from clear, for example, that the euro is going to last, at least in its present form, with a real prospect of some at least of the Mediterranean countries leaving to enable them to control their own fiscal, monetary and exchange rate policies. If the economic situation in some of the EU countries deteriorates beyond a certain point, nationalist governments may get elected on anti-EU platforms.
Another real possibility, however, is that the trigger for a major change, at least as regards the UK's role in the EU, may come from within Britain. The UK has a very large annual net payment to make which is set to rise rapidly over the coming years until the next settlement is due in 2013. If these increasing subventions to all other EU Member States take place against a background of deterioration in our national finances, this could provoke much more serious resentment than we have seen so far. If this, and all the other widely held concerns about our membership of the EU - on farming, fisheries, excessive regulation, trade, military matters, corruption, immigration, let alone all the issues round democracy - then became reflected in the manifesto commitments of one of our major parties, the scene might be set for a much more vigorous attempt than we have seen so far to get radical changes made in our terms of membership. If these negotiations failed to achieve results which were acceptable, this might lead to a referendum on our continuing membership being held against a much less propitious background for continuing membership than there might be at the moment. Although the future of the EU may look secure now, political structures can start unravelling fast once some crucial event or series of events triggers the process starting.
Would Britain be able to survive outside the main EU governmental structure? Of course we could. We still have the fifth largest economy in the world. There is no reason why we could not continue to co-operate fully with our European neighbours in all areas of policy where it makes sense for us to do so. This should include the four freedoms of movement of labour, capital, goods and services, which are enjoyed by countries such as Switzerland and Norway, which are not EU members. There is no prospect of us being isolated in trade terms, not least because the other EU Member States sell far more to us than we do to them. We could then run our own farming and fisheries policies, untrammelled by the CAP and the CFP. We could regain or strengthen our position as a major player on our own account at the World Trade Organisation, at the United Nations, in the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. We would regain our capacity for running our own foreign policy. Above all, we could strengthen and refurbish our democratic control over those we elect to govern us. Presented in these terms, there is little doubt that this future would coincide much more closely to what most people in Britain want than what continuing membership of the EU would offer us. The key question for the future is whether events are going to develop in such a way that the issues to be decided get put to the electorate in an environment where they would vote for a major change. Time will tell and we shall see, but those who assume that the future of the EU' will be a steady progression to it becoming an ever more powerful state in its own right may be in for an - to them - unwelcome turn of events. Democracy may have a surprise in store for those whose belief in its importance and its capacity for survival has faded.