The EU Constitution: A pointless exercise


Al-Qaeda can claim credit for unseating the Spanish Government last March.  One consequence of that was the withdrawal of Spanish forces from Iraq.  A lesser, and lesser known, consequence was the success of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) in the European election.


The coming to power of the Spanish socialists revived the possibility of agreement on an EU Constitution, which had been thwarted before Christmas by the previous government’s insistence on sticking to the voting weights assigned by the Nice Treaty.  The new flexibility in Madrid meant that the Constitution was back on the agenda and that, with Blair refusing to countenance a referendum on the Constitution, the EU elections in the UK were sure to be dominated by the demand for a referendum, which had the support of 70-80% of the electorate.


The Conservatives were licking their lips at the prospect of the collapse of the Labour vote in the EU elections, and possibly in the local elections in England and Wales to be held the same day.  Humiliation, and perhaps early retirement, was beckoning for Blair.


However, faced with this imminent disaster, Blair reversed gear, as he did over Ken Livingstone, and promised a referendum if a Constitution were agreed.  The Conservative fox was shot and the UKIP, helped by the recent acquisition of Robert Kilroy-Silk, was able to make membership of the EU an issue and, by so doing, make a big hole in the Conservative vote.


UKIP significance

The Conservatives got only 27% of the vote when they expected over 40%.  Labour was reduced to a mere 23%, that is, only 1 in 10 of the electorate, but think of what that figure might have been if Blair had not promised a referendum.  The UKIP came third with 17%, marginally ahead of the Liberal Democrats.  Although around 45% of their votes came from people who voted Conservative in 2001, a surprisingly high percentage came from Labour (20%) and the Liberal Democrats (11%).


Much has been written since about this dramatic rise in the UKIP vote and its significance for British politics.  It has little or none.  Commentators seem to have forgotten that in the 1999 EU elections UKIP got around 7% of the vote without a well known face at its head, but in the 2001 General Election its vote faded away to less than 1%.  Something similar will happen at the next General Election.  The Conservatives are not going to win it, but they have little or nothing to worry about from UKIP.


The EU elections provide voters with an ideal opportunity to kick the Government.  And it’s a free kick, in the sense that it doesn’t cost voters anything since it doesn’t matter who gets elected.  The European Parliament has little or no impact on the lives of the people of the EU.  So voters can indulge themselves in EU elections, without fear of the consequences.  Not only that, since the voting system is proportional, indulgence can have an effect by getting people elected.  The end result should not be taken as a guide to voting at the next General Election, which is about the serious business of choosing a party to govern the UK, and where the first past the post system means that voting UKIP instead of Conservative might get a Labour or Liberal Democrat MP elected.


Little difference

The difference between the Labour and Conservative parties on the EU is almost non-existent (as it is on most other matters), but they pretend that there is a great gulf between them (as they do on other matters).  Labour pretends that the Conservatives want Britain to leave the EU, and the Conservatives pretend that Labour is in favour of a European Superstate.  In reality, both want the EU to remain approximately as it is, that is, little more than a free trade area.


Both are resolutely opposed to political union, to the “ever closer union” envisaged in the Treaty of Rome.  Their common enthusiasm for EU enlargement was motivated by a desire to put a brake on political union, not by a spirit of generosity towards the new members from Eastern Europe, who were forced to accept a very poor deal.


Of course, Blair came to power seven years ago, armed with the soundbite that Britain should be at the heart of Europe.  But he has consistently resisted any extension of the powers of the EU, most recently in negotiating the Constitution.  His flirtation with joining the Euro zone seems to have been an aberration, which he has now put behind him.  It never made sense that someone who was determined to resist the EU gaining powers over relatively trivial matters was considering granting one of its institutions, the European Central Bank, the fundamental power of setting interest rates for Britain.


Theoretically, the Conservative stance is now to seek to return some existing EU powers to the nation states.  Scratching around for examples of such powers, all they have managed to come up with is international aid and fishing.  But Michael Howard has made it clear that he is not proposing that Britain leave the EU if these powers are not repatriated.  So, it can be taken for granted that this is not a serious policy but merely rhetoric designed to position the Conservatives on the Eurosceptic side of Labour for electoral purposes.


Case for membership

The intervention of UKIP was a breath of fresh air, which cast serious doubt on the case for the UK’s membership of the EU.  When pressed to make such a case, supporters of membership usually mutter vaguely that millions of jobs in Britain depend on exports to the EU.  Listeners are meant to take from this that millions of jobs would be lost if Britain left the EU, although this is not usually stated directly. 


There would have been some truth to this 20 years ago when the EU had a high external tariff, which would have made it difficult for Britain to sell into the EU from outside.  But today the external tariff is less than 2% on average, which is a good deal less significant than currency fluctuations for selling goods into the EU. 


To my surprise, I heard Robert Kilroy-Silk make this point clearly during the election campaign.  And on the Today programme on 19 June, John Humphries put this point to Neil Kinnock and left him floundering.


The three main parties are wedded to the dogma that global free trade is good thing.  If and when they get their heart’s desire, the world will become one big free trade area, in which case what’s the point of an EU that is little more than a free trade area?


From time to time, complaints are made that Blair has failed make the case for Britain’s membership of the EU, and from time to time he has promised to do so.  But it has never materialised, and the reason it has never materialised is that a case barely exists for the kind of EU that Blair wants, that is, a free trade area.  A case can be made for political union, but Blair (and Howard and Kennedy) is opposed to that.


Referendum unwinnable

The EU Constitution is not a blueprint for a European state.  In the days when he was resisting calls for a referendum on it, Blair described its compilation as a “tidying up exercise”.  Since it is largely put together from existing treaties, that description is not far from the truth.


Nevertheless, a referendum on it is unwinnable.  What case can its proponents make for it?  When he announced the referendum, Blair gave the impression that he was going to somehow turn it into a referendum on EU membership.  Since, as the Conservatives swiftly pointed out, rejection of the Constitution would maintain the status quo with the UK a member of the EU, that plan was quietly dropped.


So what is plan B?  Vote for this Constitution because it is “a tidying up exercise” that will make little or no difference, which begs the question: why is it necessary at all?  What problem is it supposed to address?  Blair will no doubt say that it is to make the EU workable after enlargement, which begs the question: why, when negotiations stalled before Christmas, there was a feeling of relief emanating from Downing Street that an awkward issue had gone away, rather than deep regret that the enlarged EU would now be unworkable?  The plain fact is that enlargement was in the pipeline long before the scheme to draw up a Constitution, or the structural changes within it, was thought of, and, prior to 11 March, enlargement was going ahead with the present arrangements.


It is impossible for Blair to work up enthusiasm for a Yes vote by saying vote for this, it’s not important.  But he cannot do anything else without adding to the suspicion, worked up by the press and the Conservatives, that the Constitution is significant step on the road to a European state.  The use of the term “Constitution”, and the fact that a “Constitutional Convention” was held to draw it up, makes it very difficult to refute this: as Howard keeps on saying, states have Constitutions, whereas relations between states are governed by Treaties.  There was no need of a Constitution to make the enlarged EU workable: the Nice Treaty made the arrangements for enlargement, which are now said to be unworkable.  If so, there is a simple solution: amend the Nice Treaty; there is no need for a Constitution.


If the EU was moving towards a political union, and its members were all agreed on that course, then there would be a case for devising a Constitution to reflect that sense of purpose.  In fact, development of political union is stalled, thanks largely to Britain, which for the last 20 years has been hell bent on preventing the EU evolving into an alternative centre of power to the US.  In France and Germany, and a number of other states, the ambition remains, but, unless Britain is driven out of the EU, it is not going to happen.  Meanwhile, drawing up a Constitution is a pointless exercise.


Tactical retreat

Blair didn’t want an EU Constitution in the first place, and he was delighted when Spain and Poland stymied it before Christmas.  When the possibility of one being agreed re-emerged, thanks to al-Qaeda, he had to beat a tactical retreat and concede a referendum in order to avoid a meltdown in the Labour vote in the EU elections.


He would probably have survived that.  But, had he forced the Constitution through Parliament without a referendum, when popular opinion was against it, he would have been damaged by the issue at the General Election, perhaps fatally damaged.  With a referendum promised after the General Election, that won’t happen.


Just as Hague’s attempt to make the Euro the central issue of the last General Election failed because a referendum was promised on it, so any attempt to make the Constitution the central issue of the next General Election will now fail.  It must be assumed that Howard is too smart to make the mistake that Hague made.


Tactically, Blair’s about turn was a stroke of genius, which robbed the Conservatives of an issue that just might have won them the next election.   Since they have decided not to make an issue of Blair misleading Parliament and the public before the invasion of Iraq, and since it is inconceivable that they could win on domestic issues, the next election is over bar the shouting.  At a stroke, Blair has, bar unforeseen accidents, won himself a third term.


The referendum is unwinnable, but then one may never be held.  Putting it on the long finger means that one or more of the other 24 states in the EU may have rejected the Constitution before the UK referendum is held – in which case there is no point in a UK referendum, since the Constitution would then be a dead letter, which would have to be renegotiated and reapproved, or abandoned.


It will be interesting to see if the legislation providing for the referendum allows it to be cancelled if the Constitution is rejected by another state.  That would be the best result for Blair: the Constitution would then be put back into cold storage, where it languished unlamented from Christmas until al-Qaeda bombed Spanish trains on 11 March.



Labour & Trade Union Review

July 2004