Leading Article: Parliament's own goal over Maastricht

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The Independent Online
THE PUBLIC could be forgiven for thinking that the Commons debates on the Maastricht treaty have concerned some great principle, such as British parliamentary sovereignty. Many people no doubt assume that all-night sessions and days of debate must indicate an issue of great significance. They might be disappointed to learn that in reality most of the proceedings have been futile and trivial.

Politicians have been playing procedural games that have harmed the reputation of Parliament and damaged the standing of Britain's legislative democracy. MPs returning to their constituencies speak privately of the anger and bafflement of voters, who feel as remote from these proceedings as they do from Brussels. For politicians to claim that they are defending parliamentary sovereignty is a travesty of the truth.

Yesterday's events, which involved a retreat by the Government over legislation incorporating the treaty into British law, represent the latest example of parliamentary futility. True, it was an embarrassing defeat that showed the weakness of John Major's administration. Even Douglas Hurd's bravado during Commons exchanges could not disguise this fact. Labour's amendment means that the Bill is now at odds with the agreed treaty, a development ministers sought desperately to avoid and cannot now gloss over.

However, Britain will still ratify the treaty and continue on much the same European course that three Conservative prime ministers - Edward Heath, Margaret Thatcher and John Major - have plotted. The row may continue over whether Britain will have to abide by the Social Chapter of the treaty. But the Government has moved that conflict to the courts, and if it loses there can fight another day in Parliament.

Moreover, the outcome of that squabble is likely to have little impact on the long-term process into which Britain is inexorably drawn and which the Prime Minister must clearly recognise. There is both an economic and a political convergence taking place in Europe, which Britain alone cannot resist.

Maastricht is part of this evolution. But the real sacrifices of national sovereignty, which the Government would still prefer not to admit, occurred long before in the Treaty of Rome and the Single European Act. Indeed, by embracing the notion of subsidiarity, the Maastricht treaty offers the prospect of a devolution of powers from Brussels.

Attempts by Tory rebels and the Opposition to ambush the Government over the Maastricht treaty have been launched in the full knowledge of these realities. After all, to follow up their victory yesterday they eventually may have to appeal to the European Court of Justice. It would be ironic if anti-Maastricht Tories sought the help of this ultimate EC arbiter.

Tory rebels have blinded themselves to these realities in an attempt to demonise the Maastricht treaty. Rowing against the European tide, they have undermined Britain in Europe. All the heat has cast little light on real issues, but rather exploited a confused and increasingly angry British public.