Referendum ( The Lisbon Treaty and the European Union)
This piece is prompted by William Hague's comment on the 3rd August that the Brexit referendum could have been avoided if Gordon Brown and Tony Blair had had a referendum on ratifying the Lisbon Treaty. This episode can be found on Spotify (and other platforms) see link:
I believe this was a little unfair and the best moment to have had a referendum would have been for John Major to call a referendum several years earlier at the time of the Maarstricht Treaty. Indeed, I feel this omission was so great that I personally view him as the worst Prime Minister of the twentieth century.
Before I explain this I ask you to consider the following reply from my father when I asked him why he voted to join the EEC in 1975 and then voted to leave the EU in 2016: " I voted to join a Common Market not a European Union." This is important. For as we left under a campaign of lies we also joined on a campaign of lies. But then voters are not fools and expect to be lied to. That one institution would lead to the other was part of the plan and no adequate attempt to explain or sell the idea was made. This has effectively meant that there was a progressive and singular failure over time to create more Europeans; that is, a common population that could identify as European as well as British, in the same way I identify as British as well as English. A political intellectual snobbery failed to listen to address peoples questions, concerns and fears, perhaps typified at its worst when Gordon Brown called Gillian Duffy bigoted.
In 2009 I read the following quote by Labour MP Gisela Stuart and it intrigued me enough to make a note of it:
"My basic test of democracy is: can I get rid of them? By casting a vote, you can change the people who are in control of you. Lisbon does not give you, as a citizen, the means to control the executive or the politicians who decide on your behalf, and that's the hurdle it falls on. The nature of democracy is really at stake."
What struck me is that Gisela Stuart was a German born British Labour MP that had been involved on the committee which drew up the constitution that was to become the Lisbon Treaty and she was warning that the Treaty put the future of UK democracy at stake. Indeed I believe that the European Union has a huge democratic deficit and I am yet to have this fear resolved.
This made me look at other EU countries and how they ratified the Lisbon Treaty. Every country ratified the Treaty through their Parliament and only Ireland had a referendum. It has to be noted that it took two referendums to get this by the Irish people. Whether false or not my instinct was to question why and to look at prior treaties. The "why" was defended in one interview that I read that it was a Treaty that did not need ratification by the electorate because it simply tidied up and codified what had developed since the Maarstricht Treaty and this reasoning was echoed by politicians throughout Europe.
So I started to look at the Maastricht Treaty and understood that this really laid the foundations of the European Union in the following significant areas:
European citizenship and free movement
Common foreign and security policy based upon common values, fundamental interests and independance of the Union
Closer co-operation on justice and home affairs
It established the European Central Bank and laid the foundations for the Euro establishing a set of stages to enable this
It established rules on how the Euro would work and the rules for new countries to join the Euro. These rules covered levels of public debt, interest rates, and an exchange rate mechanism.
It established a clear direction and pathway for greater integration.
In short the Treaty created a lowering of barriers and a transference of power. Of the twelve countries signing the Maarstricht Treaty only four held a referendum. The results of this are interesting:
Italy - held an advisory referendum in 1989 in order to create a popular mandate which was a wise move for such a nationalistic state. The vote was a resounding 88% in favour with an 81% turn out.
Ireland - 69% in favour with a 57% turn out.
France - 51% in favour with a 70% turn out.
Denmark - 50.7% against with an 83% turnout. The anti-Maastricht sentiment caught national leaders off guard, especially the Danish no vote. To get a "yes" vote from the Danes four concessions were granted as opt outs: European citizenship, the single currency, common defence policy, and co-operation regarding internal security. In the second referendum 11 months after the "no" vote 57% voted yes. Considering the vast concessions the 43% "no" vote was considerable and riots ensued.
So I refer back to my father's statement: " I voted to join a Common Market not the European Union." The Maastricht Treaty is a key event that tilted the European Union from being primarily about business to being primarily about politics. In my view it was an act of political cowardice or arrogance that meant John Major did not give the British people the opportunity to vote on the ratification of the Maarstricht Treaty in a referendum. The reason for this is that his party was split and he put party interests before what was right to do. Because of this single catastrophic failure to grasp the nettle and properly explain the effects of the Maarstricht Treaty and hold a referendum I regard him as the worst PM of the Twentieth Century. However, this does not let subsequent PM's off the hook, although I do concede it gives them a defence.
At the time of Maarstricht treaty the expansion of the European Union could be anticipated and was actively pursued. But the political failure to consult, listen to peoples fears and concerns, or worst still simply arrogantly dismiss them bred the monsters of Farage and Johnson gave them credence. If nothing else is learned we should take our lead from the likes of Alistair Campbell and Rory Stewart (and Norman Tebbit and Austin Mitchell before them) and have more open discussion of politics for the greater good of us all.