The French ‘Non’ – sense, or nonsense?

by Stephen Tall on May 30, 2005

And so it came to pass: France, one of the six founding signatories of the 1957 Treaty of Rome, has rejected the constitutional treaty drafted by its former president, Valery Giscard d’Estaing. The Netherlands – another founder member – we can assume will also now follow suit. The treaty is dead, long liveā€¦ what precisely?

Back in the days when I was a convinced socialist (I was only 16, and had yet to see the liberal light), I was a resolute Euro-sceptic for all the usual, tired reasons: signing up to the European ‘super-state’ – as sceptics must always call it – represented a threat to our economic sovereignty which would prevent such far-sighted British economic policies as maintaining politicians’ control over setting interest rates, and the re-nationalisation of any failing industry which happened to catch a future left-wing government’s eye. I remember feeling uneasy at the time that this stance pigeon-holed me with right-wing Tories, whose own protests about loss of sovereignty scarcely masked the unpleasantly xenophobic conviction that all foreigners are up to something.

Now, of course, I am a pro-European in a party widely recognised – sometimes to its own discomfort – as the most Euro-friendly in British politics. Just last week, I duly cast my pro-constitution ‘Yes’ ballot in a referendum organised by Oxford University’s European Affairs Society. I would have happily campaigned for such a verdict in the event of a national plebiscite here.

Yet I find myself curiously equable about the Treaty’s French rejection. The reason is simple: for too long the pan-European political classes have been pushing the cause of European union too hard and too fast. If the French ‘non’ acts as a wake-up call to those who have been too complacently assured of the rightness of their actions to bother explaining to their voters what are the positive benefits of the EU then it will have served its purpose.

The Liberal Democrats have all too often found themselves in an unpleasant bind when it comes to our pro-European values. Because of our commitment to the cause of greater international co-operation, we have been the ones most enthusiastically championing reform of the EU’s structures.

As I often remind voters who challenge me about the Lib Dems’ pro-Europeanism, we were the only one of the three main parties to have argued that British ratification of the 1994 Maastricht Treaty should have been subject to a referendum. More recently, the Lib Dem group of MEPs was among the most vociferously critical of the Jaques Santer Commission, which was eventually forced to resign en masse. We have also long campaigned against the scandal that is the Common Agricultural Policy, subsidising inefficient French farmers at the direct expense of Third World countries. It is because we want the EU to work effectively that we urge change.

This is at sharp counterpoint to the Tories’ nihilistic anti-Europeanism, which complains about EU abuses to hoover up the xenophobe vote, but has few ideas for how to put matters right. The EU constitution is a case in point, with the Tories vowing to oppose it on the grounds that only nation states have constitutions – which will come as news to the thousands of social and sporting clubs up and down the country which recognise the value of having clearly understood rights and responsibilities written down, and to which those in power can be held accountable.

Yet it has to be admitted that the Little Englander right-wingers have been prodigiously effective in acquiring “squatters’ rights” over European discussions. Because of our news media’s inability to cope with anything more complicated than binary politics, such debates are always framed as Europhobe vs Europhile, with the Lib Dems clearly labelled as lovers of all fromage-eating surrender monkeys.

The real bummer of the French veto is that the opportunity to bring these issues up front and centre in Britain has, at least temporarily, been lost. Whatever the result – and I suspect the Treaty would have been rejected here too – these arguments need an airing: ceaseless sublimation simply is not healthy for our political discourse.

(It is for this reason, I will parenthetically observe that I am not as sure as others are that the Prime Minister will welcome the French vote as a ‘get out of jail free’ card which enables him to jettison the referendum which would, had the No camp won, have holed his premiership below the waterline. Mr Blair’s eyes are on the prize of history’s validation of his tenure at No 10 (I think, wisely, he’s given up on contemporary approbation): bravely spearheading the progressive push for a Yes would have presented him with dignified closure to his term of office, regardless of the popular verdict.)

So what should Liberal Democrats be arguing for in a Treaty referendum if ever the occasion presents itself? (And here I acknowledge my debt to Nick Clegg’s excellent analysis, ‘Europe: a Liberal Future’, published in the infamous ‘Orange Book’, which unjustifiably continues to act as a lightning conductor for internal party dissent).

First, that the debate is about bloody time: that splits in political parties (including in the Lib Dems) are no good reason for sticking our fingers in our ears in the vain hope the public won’t notice, and will continue to place their trust in the ruling elites to know best.

Secondly, to take the fight to the Europhobes, and face them down. It has become a truism of Tories like John Redwood, as well as UKIP, that of course they support a free trade bloc, but they never signed up to a political union. It is an intellectually bankrupt argument, and deserves to be drubbed out of existence. Even the most red-blooded of capitalists recognises that free trade is not an island entire of itself. Pollution does not recognise state borders; nor very often do criminals or terrorists. The rationale for joint-working with our European partners on issues such as environmental protection; cross-border crime; asylum and immigration; regulation of cross-border business; foreign policy co-ordination; a common fisheries policy; cross-border infrastructure links for energy supply and transport (and so on) is unanswerable. As Mr Clegg says:

“In none of these policy areas is it possible for the UK, or any EU member state, to exercise the same reach as when the EU acts in its collective interests. In contrast to the familiar argument that the EU inhibits the ‘sovereignty’ of its member governments, the reality is that pooling formal decision-making authority has allowed all its member states to extend the scope of their policy-making sovereignty well beyond national boundaries.”

Thirdly, that the EU is crying out for greater levels of accountability. The unelected Commission and Council of Ministers too often make decisions in secret which are opaque. Nor is the European Parliament an adequate check on its powers. One argument put forward by some pro-Europeans is for MEPs to be given more power in order to act as an effective check and balance on the executive. It is a logical position, but one which is flawed. As anybody who has canvassed in a Euro-election can attest, the issues raised on the door-steps are those of local and national import, almost never pan-European: put bluntly, our MEPs lack a popular, democratic mandate. The challenge is for national governments to develop mechanisms by which they can scrutinise the actions of the EU’s core decision-making bodies, and to provide a more transparent accountability between the voters and the votees.

Fourthly, the EU should focus on those areas where it can (in the jargon of the times) add most value, and withdraw from those arena which can be governed at national or local level. The guiding principle under which it should operate is straightforward: when there is a cross-border issue at stake, or when, by acting in concert, member-states can promote their collective interests better than they could individually. This would ensure greater focus on those areas where the EU can make the biggest difference – such as foreign policy, or immigration and asylum – and leave most agricultural, social and regional issues to national (or local) governments, where power should properly reside.

So there you have it: the positive liberal European argument which deserves to be heard. On the face of it, the French ‘Non’ has stymied the chances of it being put to the popular test. But there will be other treaties, future referendums. For today, we should value the hiatus which will surely follow as a golden opportunity to make the case to a public which has, for too long, been forgotten by politicians, bar the occasional injunction to “Keep up at the back”.