Leading Article: Power, prestige and paradox

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The Independent Online
THE GREAT yawn with which the British people are greeting this week's debate on the Maastricht treaty should make the politicians think. On one level, Thursday's vote will touch on very big issues - Britain's place in Europe, its competitiveness in world markets, its constitutional arrangements, parliamentary sovereignty and the future of John Major. On another level, it may or may not settle a tiresome squabble by overwrought politicians with mixed motives over a treaty that is already half dead, may never be fully implemented, is not much liked by the states that signed it and leaves the public bored stiff.

Both views are valid. European integration does indeed involve a gradual diminution in the powers of the British government and the House of Commons. It is important that this process should be fully debated and understood at every stage. It is also important that constitutionality should be observed.

This is why Lord Rees-Mogg's legal challenge should be welcomed, regardless of the motives that lie behind it. As he explains, he is not challenging Parliament's right to legislate the treaty but the Government's right to ratify it without parliamentary approval of all its parts, in particular the social protocol and the transfer of powers over foreign affairs and defence. His case is an interesting one that deserves a serious hearing, not least because it promotes the principle of judicial review of constitutionality.

It is, however, paradoxical that the entire battle around the treaty, in which the power and prestige of Parliament are supposedly at stake, is doing more than any of the machinations of foreigners to bring that institution into disrepute. The tactical manoeuvres, the blatant manipulation of procedural points, the transparent hypocrisy of many of the participants, the sharpening of personal knives against Mr Major, the sight of staunch Conservatives preparing to vote for a social protocol they detest, the wooing of the Ulster Unionists and the whole wearisome wrangle that has eaten up so much parliamentary time at the expense of more urgent issues - all this must be persuading some people that the sooner more power passes to the European Parliament the better.

In the end, what will matter most is whether the treaty is ratified. The case for ratification is not that it will take Europe towards a new era of political and economic growth through closer union. Those hopes are in abeyance until more sense can be made of the post-Communist world. There are two main reasons for ratification. One is to get the wretched treaty out of the way so that Europe can devote its full attention to more important issues. The other is to avoid the price of not ratifying, namely, more time-wasting confusion in the Community and the isolation of Britain.

Assuming that Germany eventually ratifies - no longer a safe assumption - Mr Major's central argument remains valid: it is better to accept a somewhat unsatisfactory treaty to remain at the centre of European decision-making than to consign Britain to the fringe, where it could become the victim of decisions made by others. That would erode the real power of Parliament far more effectively than the Maastricht treaty.