Leading article: The European disunion

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A referendum on the European reform treaty is not needed, but is it desirable? There were no referendums on previous treaties that really did transfer powers from Parliament to the European Union. Yet Tony Blair muddied the waters in 2004, when he agreed there should be a referendum on the European constitution. Of course, the constitutional treaty – killed off by referendums in France and the Netherlands – was different from the current treaty. How different is a matter for nit-picking debate. The point is that Mr Blair conceded the principle of a referendum – in order to keep the Murdoch press on-side ahead of an election.

Once it is accepted that beyond a certain level of constitutional importance a referendum is justified, it becomes difficult – and sounds defensive – to argue that this threshold has not been breached. It only confuses matters further to point out that there was no referendum in this country on the Single European Act, which set up the single market, and the Maastricht Treaty, which created the European Union out of the European Community. The Blair argument, which Gordon Brown supported, implies there should have been. Plainly, if there should have been a referendum on the constitutional treaty, there should have been one on the Maastricht Treaty, which had more far-reaching implications.

In that case, however, should the British people not be allowed a retrospective vote on Maastricht? Is there not some force to the argument put forward by Sir Menzies Campbell – of whom more later – that the British should have a vote not on the reform treaty but on the bigger question of whether they want to continue to be members of the EU at all?

The Independent on Sunday opposed Mr Blair's promise of a referendum in 2004, but we should be clear about why. We believe it would greatly strengthen the EU if its basic rules were rewritten to be approved by all the peoples of the member states in referendums. But that is a venture that would have to start from the principle of direct democracy. The constitution was conceived quite differently, as a document drawn up by an elite of Euro-worthies chaired by Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. If they – or a more representative body – had started work on a document they knew would have to be approved in referendums, they would have produced a very different text.

The past six years have been, therefore, a long detour around the objective of a secure democratic foundation for the EU. We have ended up with a treaty that is a minor improvement in the EU's bureaucratic organogram. It ought to be hard for rational people to get excited about. It is clearly not strictly necessary, in that the union has managed to function since it expanded from 15 members to 25 in 2004 and to 27 this year. But it is plainly not a step towards a federal superstate, either.

Let us be realistic about the present debate on a referendum. There is not going to be one, either in this country or in any other member state except Ireland and – just possibly – Denmark. David Cameron and William Hague are engaged in a transparent display of opportunism, because they know that too. Note, also, that they focus on the case in favour of a referendum rather than the case against the treaty – because the Europhobes cannot easily summarise why it is so terrible.

It may be that Mr Brown is cowardly in refusing to take on the anti-European press in Britain. In Lisbon last week his language was, once again, that of the lone Brit standing firm. He was confident, he said, that the "fullest parliamentary debate to ratify the summit accord would demonstrate beyond doubt that he had safeguarded the British national interest". In this he is no different from his predecessor, who also promised to lead a great national movement against the xenophobia of the so-called sceptics but ended up endorsing it.

What a gap in the market there is, therefore, for a strong, clear voice of pro-European principle in British politics. When Alan Watkins asks, on page 55, what is the point of the Liberal Democrats, this is surely a large part of the answer. Sadly, this newspaper has been proved right in the view that Sir Menzies was the wrong leader for his time. Chris Huhne, whom we supported last year, and Nick Clegg both hold out the hope of a more vigorous advocacy of the European cause.

This treaty is the probably the end of EU institutional tinkering for at least a decade, as Mr Brown suggested last week. That means that the union can and must devote itself to the challenges of the future: climate change, migration and the politics of quality of life. But it requires flair, courage and a new vocabulary from a leader of European vision to exploit that opportunity. Your mission, Mr Huhne or Mr Clegg, should you choose to accept it.