Tony Blair should be honest about the Euro-constitution and put it to the people

If the PM tried to proceed without a referendum, he would face a crisis on a scale no government has since the Great Reform Bill
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The Independent Online

A united Europe is not a dishonourable goal. On the contrary, it is a cause rooted in idealism. After 1945, the future leaders of the European movement concluded that their continent had to outgrow the nation state in order to outgrow war and that only European union could save European civilisation.

That was the ultimate aim, and there have been considerable achievements along the route. During its first three decades, even allowing for the Common Agricultural Policy and other varieties of corruption, the European Union's successes greatly outweighed its failures.

But time brings change. As we in Britain have discovered with the NHS, the answers which worked in the Fifties may not be applicable to the questions thrown up by the Nineties. On the continent, the Rhineland economic model, once so effective, is now the problem and not the solution. Nor is there any reason to go on addressing the difficulties of yesteryear. Even if all moves towards European integration ceased forthwith, does anyone believe that France and Germany would go back to war? To an extent, the European ideal has been a victim of its own successes.

It is also now being used to victimise others, in a most un-idealistic fashion. The French always hated the thought of enlarging the EU to the centre and east. They feared losing control. John Major understood that the moral challenge facing Europe in the 1990s was to assist the nations which had gone into the darkness after Yalta to develop free institutions. To their credit, the German political élite agreed with him. The French political élite, which has never been interested in moral challenges, acquiesced with the greatest reluctance. As recently as 15 months ago, senior French diplomats were insisting that enlargement would not proceed, and Jacques Chirac's recent comments demonstrated his lack of enthusiasm. The French only agreed to enlargement for fear of a breach with Berlin.

Even so, Paris is demanding its prices. The new nations are only to be admitted if they go under the yoke and accept the full rigidity of the existing structures: no opt-outs for them. The French are hoping that they can be so coerced that they will refrain from further challenges to French predominance.

But this is not the way to promote healthy political evolution in central and Eastern Europe. As a result of their recent history, many of the inhabitants of Western Europe (Britain excepted) have lost confidence in the nation state, which has helped to embed the EU in their domestic politics. That does not apply in the new member states. Far from being ready to move beyond the nation state, they are still trying to learn how to be independent. Given their history, it is important that they should do so, and have the chance to sack the governments that take the big decisions that affect them. They even need the chance to make their own mistakes.

None of this should lead to instability. That is more likely to occur when their populations realise that their brief interlude of infant democracy has ended and the power has now gone to Brussels. Though the European Union will no doubt prove a much more benign imperial master than the Soviet Union was, the recently liberated peoples are entitled to a long period of post-imperialism and self-government. To the French, who never wanted them, such considerations are irrelevant. That could be something which those who care about Europe will come to regret.

We in Britain have more immediate reasons for regret, and alarm. Once again, we are being lied to by our own Europhiles. Yet again, they are trying to pretend that a major abrogation of sovereignty is a trifling matter. For 40 years, they have pursued an honourable goal by dishonourable methods, but even by those standards, the attempt to smuggle the Giscard constitution is brazen in its shamelessness.

The Giscard proposals would create a single European entity. Almost all the safeguards of inter-governmental decision-making would be eliminated, and the same would be true of the national veto. Europe would gain greatly enhanced powers over economic, social and legal matters; there could also be threats to Britain's ability to pursue its own defence and foreign policy.

This constitution would, of course, be interpreted by a European court, most of whose judges will be ardent federalists. As we have learnt from the record of liberal American Supreme Court justices and indeed from our own courts' role in extending judicial review, judges are easily tempted to encroach on the prerogatives of the legislature. The judges of M. Giscard's Constitutional Court will see it as their duty to provide the legal underpinning for a European state.

The minister for Europe, Peter Hain, tells us that this is a mere tidying up exercise. If he had said: "tidying away" he would have been more accurate: tidying away the democratic accountability of our government, tidying away our people's power to make their own laws and safeguard their own liberties, tidying away Britain's independence.

Tony Blair tells us not to worry; he will secure changes to the wording. So no doubt he will, by excising references to federalism or a United States of Europe. But whatever concessions the PM secures on M. Giscard's rhetoric, the reality will remain federalist. The sole consequences of Mr Blair's intervention will be to make the document less honest.

Yet all may turn out for the best. This time, the Europeans have finally been rumbled; they have lost the battle for public opinion before it has even started. Until the constitution imbroglio, it was just about possible to conceive of circumstances in which the British people might vote "yes" in a euro referendum. There is absolutely no prospect of a "yes" vote in a Euro-constitution referendum, which is why Mr Blair insists that there is absolutely no prospect of his holding one. Yet if the Prime Minister tried to proceed without a referendum he would face a crisis of consent and legitimacy on a scale which no British government has encountered since the Great Reform Bill. The constitutional question has also scuppered his chances of being able to win a euro referendum.

After 40 years of Europhile subterfuge, the game is up. They have over-reached themselves and lost their power to deceive the British people. Yet there is no reason for them to renounce their ambitions; they merely have to argue for them honestly. Back in the 1980s, Geoffrey Howe once expressed regret that Europhiles had not been more candid in acknowledging their objectives. But it was only a brief regret, and none of the Europhiles ever took his advice.

Archbishop Ussher once wrote that the man who says that honesty is the best policy is not an honest man. Nor are most Europhiles. Yet they should still recognise that honesty is not only their best policy, but their only hope.