A treaty past its sell-by date

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The Independent Online
AS A project, Maastricht is dead. But as a topic of political debate it is still frighteningly, rendingly, alive.

Maastricht is dead as a project, because the force that gave it life - the Franco-German commitment to federalism - is no longer there. That was the force that lent authority to the federalist utterances of Jacques Delors. But that force always rested on an illusion, now wilted: the French illusion that a federated Europe would be under French control.

The French never at any time contemplated abandonment of their own sovereignty. Rather, the other European states would yield their sovereignty to Francophone federal institutions under the intellectual and moral hegemony and political leadership of France. Germany would be France's partner, but this would be a partnership of 'horse and rider': French brains in control of German economic brawn.

This was never a plausible scenario, but since the unification of Germany - which the French did their best to avert - it has been losing plausibility, even among the French. The case of former Yugoslavia has demonstrated that where a common European policy emerges, it is dominated not by the French but by the Germans - and with lamentable results.

The death of the Franco-German federalist impulse is disguised by the fact that the two old arch-federalists, Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand, are still around, and still like to hear themselves say the kind of thing they have been saying for years. But it will not be long before they leave the political stage and then Maastricht - even if ratified by all the Twelve - will be seen to be a dead letter. Nobody (outside Brussels) any longer wants European political union, and European monetary union is unattainable.

The project is dead; but the topic is still alive. As a topic of debate, the Treaty on European Union is the most divisive thing that has happened to Europe since the Second World War. It has divided member countries from one another and it has divided them internally. The internal divisions have exacerbated the international ones. The French referendum which split the French almost exactly in half also strained Franco-German relations, since both sides in the referendum volubly discussed the need to cope with the German 'threat', according to conflicting methods.

Nowhere is Maastricht proving more divisive than in Britain. The most ominous aspect of the divisiveness concerns relations between Parliament and the people. It has not only united the three parties in refusing a referendum that the people are known to want, although that is bad enough. Much worse is that Parliament then lands itself into a bitter debate over issues which seem incomprehensible, and at least faintly suspect, to most of the electorate. The very foundation of parliamentary democracy - trust between Parliament and people - is being undermined by this debate, and fundamental constitutional issues that have lain dormant for three centuries have been fatefully reawakened.

Douglas Hurd was right when he said this week: 'People are becoming fed up with politics.' Also, with politicians, but not evenly. All the parties are devoting their time to those incomprehensible issues, but only the Tories have been publicly tearing themselves apart over them. As one lifelong Tory supporter, now about to vote Liberal Democrat, said this week in Christchurch: 'How can you vote for a party that doesn't know where it's going?'. When party regulars defect on that question, as they are expected to do in Christchurch, the party's condition may be terminal.

John Major is the main author of his own misfortunes. He made two capital errors over Maastricht. The first was to sign the treaty, when he could have vetoed it. He was afraid to do so, because he thought Britain would be 'isolated' and the Eleven would 'surge ahead' on their own. That would have been a reasonable fear four years earlier when the federalist project was very much alive. But by the time Maastricht came to be signed, the political force that had shaped it was spent. If Mr Major had called that bluff then, he would be in good shape today, both in Europe and in Britain.

The second error was to adopt, as virtually his brainchild, a basically federalist document, inherently repugnant to most Tories. For Pygmalion to fall in love with a beautiful creation of his own had something rather splendid about it. But for John Major to fall in love with a repulsive creation of other people, for the sole reason that he personally had amended it, showed an extreme of amour propre. And that is proving his undoing.

He should not have signed it at all. But if he felt constrained to sign it, his signature should have been subject to ratification by the British people. He could then have said to the people: 'These are the best terms we can get for Britain, if we enter the Treaty on European Union. But the decision whether to ratify the treaty on those terms is entirely up to you.'

Instead of which, he wholeheartedly embraced the treaty he had amended and immediately began to babble about 'Britain being at the heart of Europe' as if he had taken leave of his senses. Britain is not at the heart of Europe, either geographically or historically, and neither history nor geography can be altered by amendments to the Maastricht treaty.

I am on the side of the Eurosceptics in their oppositon to the federalist project. This was an attempt to federate nations, something that has never been successfully done and which, if seriously attempted in the EC, would have ended in disaster. But I still think that, since the federalist impulse is already spent, some of the Eurosceptics have been pushing their resistance to Maastricht to unnecessary and harmful extremes.

To vote consistently against ratification, in accordance with their convictions, is obviously right. But to resort to dubious tactics, such as voting for the Social Chapter, which they are known to detest, did not redound to their credit or that of their party. It would only have been justified if a United States of Europe was a real threat, which is not the case.

Maastricht, the project, is no longer a threat. But Maastricht, the topic, is. Its divisive potential appears to be endless. After the Speaker's warning to the courts against infringing the rights of Parliament, a new type of confrontation seems to be looming, no less incomprehensible to the public than Maastricht itself and so tending to erode democracy in general, rather than the Tory party in particular.

The British courts are not the only ones to be seized of Maastricht: I am in hopes that the German constitutional court will put Maastricht out of its misery in September. But that may be too late for John Major and the Tories, whatever may have happened in the meantime to the British ratification process and its ominously proliferating repercussions.

(Photograph omitted)