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Friday, May 07, 2010

If only it was true...

The dilemma thrown up by a hung parliament will obviously remain the main focus of British politics for some time. We will certainly return to what the result means for the UK's relationship with the rest of Europe as possible government arrangements become clearer.

In the meantime, the TaxPayers Alliance sparked some hope the other day by suggesting that we may get our promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty after all that, since the Treaty would need ‘re-ratification’ to accommodate for some additional MEPs - the so-called 'ghost MEPs'. They wrote:
Due to various procedural changes, the Lisbon Treaty is going to have to be ratified by Parliament yet again after the General Election. David Cameron has always been explicit that had he been Prime Minister when the Treaty came forward for ratification, he would have held a referendum. Until now that has simply been a hypothetical situation – but now it is set to become a reality.
However, even before considering the complexity added to this question by the possible deal the Tories will strike with the Lib-Dems, this is very much a case of something being ‘too good to be true’ .

Having campaigned tirelessly over the years for a referendum on the EU Constitution/Lisbon Treaty we would love to share the TPA's optimism. But a referendum on this amendment to the Lisbon Treaty is, sadly, a non-starter - although the TPA does make several important points that the Conservatives should take on board.

The TPA’s latest post on the subject cites the Lisbon Treaty's 'passerelle clause' and a 'Foreign Office confirmation' that an amended Treaty would require Parliamentary approval, but this over-complicates something that is actually fairly simple – even if the UK were to hold a referendum on an amendment to the Lisbon Treaty, it wouldn’t in any way unpick the Treaty itself. Let us explain:

Several member states want to amend the Treaty in order to allow an extra 18 MEPs to take their seats in the European Parliament. Lisbon provides for 754 MEPs but, because Lisbon had not been ratified before the European elections last year, only 736 were elected as per the rules of the previous Nice Treaty.

The need for treaty change is a consequence of the further complication that the new rules would require three German MEPs voted in under Nice to give up their seats. So the proposed solution is to change the Lisbon Treaty in order to allow the three German MEPs to remain in their seats for the rest of the term and allow the 18 new 'Lisbon' MEPs, including one from the UK, to take their seats.

The TPA are absolutely right to point out that the treaty change requires unanimity - i.e. the UK has a veto - and that Parliament will need to ratify the amended Treaty.

The desire for a referendum is completely understandable, given Gordon Brown’s and Nick Clegg’s shameful broken promises to give the people a say on this Treaty. However, a referendum on an 'amended Lisbon Treaty' would be almost completely meaningless as it would not change the fact that the Treaty as it currently stands is already ratified in the UK and throughout the EU. It would therefore only be a referendum on whether the 18 extra MEPs, including one British MEP, take their seats before the end of the current term, it would not repeal the existing Treaty.

It is simply not credible to ask an incoming British Government to call a referendum on whether to send one more MEP to Brussels – and for a potential Cameron government it’s even more unreasonable given that the extra MEP would be a Tory.

It could be argued that this presents an early opportunity to call for the renegotiation of powers, which David Cameron outlined last year, but the ghost MEP amendment is actually of very little worth as a bargaining chip, since if the changes are not agreed they will automatically go ahead after the next European elections in four years time.

But the TPA is right in principle that the Tories, if managing to form a government, should seek to use Treaty amendments or other changes to their advantage (provided that they constitute genuine bargaining tools). There are plenty of things in the pipeline where a Conservative government could use its veto to get the things it wants. For example, there may well be treaty changes to incorporate new rules for the eurozone - something certain countries will badly want and for which the UK would be well within its rights to exact a price. Or the potential creation of a European Monetary Fund, which would be a clear step towards EU fiscal federalism. Other examples include a potential Croatian accession treaty and the upcoming EU budget negotiations.

We would never discourage people from debating the significant impacts of the Lisbon Treaty, and the undemocratic way in which it came to pass, but moving forward, we should turn our attention to the many future opportunities that the next Government will have to reform the UK's relationship with the EU, reducing the wastefulness of the budget and repatriating powers that are best exercised nationally rather than from Brussels. In the context of a crumbling eurozone and the tangible mood of disenchantment with the EU around Europe, a determined British Government should indeed capitalise on future Treaty changes and find strong allies for returning powers to the Member States. But any tactic for radical EU reform must be strategic, carefully thought through and well-timed. 18 ghost MEPs, regrettably, is not the answer.

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