Stand down Thunderbirds; dustpans are go

Click to follow
The Independent Online
AN APOLOGY: this columnist may have given the impression that a looming government defeat on the Maastricht Bill would destroy the treaty; would halt European integration, making Britain a leper nation and eventually provoking a German invasion; and that it would further cause the Prime Minister to lose his hair, erupt in boils and then resign.

Lawyers for Her Majesty's Government have asked me to make clear that such suggestions are erroneous. They have caused pain and embarrassment to senior members of the Government. They were caused by irresponsible journalism of the most disreputable kind (ie, listening to the assurances of lawyers employed by Her Majesty's Government, which were then wilfully disseminated on radio and in the Commons by persons claiming to be members of that government).

I think that apology sums up the new position on the Social Chapter fairly and without malice. The anti-government coalition on this issue had, ministers thought, threatened to bring down the Maastricht temple, pillars and all. Instead, as Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, told the Commons yesterday, it was merely a question of 'completeness and tidiness . . . but it's not essential.' Stand down the Thunderbirds; out with the dustpan and brush.

The essence of the change is that, whereas before ministers had been advised that a Labour amendment knocking out part of the Maastricht Bill would make ratification of the treaty impossible, now they believe it doesn't much matter. Because the Social Chapter protocol (including a British opt-out) does not affect British law directly, it does not matter if it isn't incorporated in British law. The Opposition and the Tory rebels could do little but gape and bluster.

Ministers hint that there are other ways Labour might get at the issue. But it is hard to see how. The Social Chapter, which Labour wants, is now doubly protected from the House of Commons. The workers' rights and the British opt-out from them are bound together in a protocol that is suspended from a treaty. The Commons negotiated neither treaty nor protocol; and only the Government can ratify the treaty. British law is unaffected. How can the legislature force the Government to renegotiate, without destroying the treaty? The Government's new legal advice suggests it cannot.

The arguments are not over. Some Tory rebels think they can make trouble about the costs of the Social Chapter. These will be channelled through existing EC institutions; Britain is a joint proprietor of those institutions, so British taxpayers will contribute something. And that something must be authorised by Parliament. Also, some Labour MPs think that a defeat could undermine the Government's defence against European Court challenges, letting in the Social Chapter by the back door.

Sane people - that is, everyone who does not understand the finer points of Maastricht - will wonder why any of this matters. Didn't the Maastricht treaty have monetary union at its heart? And isn't that looking less likely than ever? And isn't the rest of the treaty a ragbag of lesser measures, not worth perpetual parliamentary warfare? Haven't ministers become obsessive about a dying treaty?

That view sounds persuasive enough and, as millions of people become bored silly with the Maastricht controversy, is clearly gaining ground. But it is (to use a favourite Hurd word) misconceived. If Britain destroyed the Maastricht treaty, her tempestuous European marriage would be over. Divorce would follow the acrimony as most of the Continental nations tried to form a new, tighter and genuinely federal system.

Anti-Maastricht nationalists would reply: fair enough, let them go to hell in their own way. But Britain would lose much. As the pro-Maastricht majority in the Commons realises, being inside a looser and less ambitious European union would be better for British influence, jobs, wealth and even identity. Within that majority, however, the Social Chapter remains a real dividing line. For the Opposition, as for most Continental parties, it represents the distinction between a trading bloc and a community. Most Tories, on the other hand, see it is a pernicious example of bureaucratic Europe loading its businesses with new burdens. Meanwhile, they see the opt-out principle as a good one, leading to flexi-Europe.

The most recent shenanigans have also highlighted the extent to which our sovereign parliament is not sovereign - any more than the Sovereign is sovereign. Nothing in the British way is quite what it appears. It has become embarrassingly clear how limited the involvement of the Commons in the Maastricht process really is. The Royal prerogative - those powers of the Crown held directly by ministers, not Parliament - includes the power to make treaties. Europe progresses by treaties and thus, rather often in Britain, by Royal prerogative. Those who think that the only threat to parliamentary power comes from Brussels should look nearer to home.

So yesterday's announcement was absurd - and serious. Its absurdity lies in its abstraction: a change in legal advice magically whisks away a constitutional crisis. But the practical effects are real and important: as in medieval Europe, abstruse theology provokes turmoil. Now we need to grasp only two essentials: this stuff matters; and lawyers are mostly wrong.