United Kingdom is about to change forever,

December 16, 2010 10:00 AM
By Andrew Duff MEP in European Voice

The United Kingdom is about to change forever, and for the worse, the terms of its membership of the European Union. One might be forgiven for wondering, after all the red lines and opt-outs of the Blair-Brown era, if Britain's relationship with the EU could become even more semi-detached without becoming entirely detached. One is about to find out.

The coalition government, in thrall to the eurosceptics, has tabled a European Union Bill. The law will impose referenda, in each case preceded by an act of parliament, on any major change in the EU treaties, on the use of the Lisbon passerelle clauses, and on UK participation (albeit unlikely) in any form of enhanced cooperation. The imposition of a referendum will be automatic apart from a small room for discretion left to ministers on minor issues. Paradoxically, the only treaty changes which will not trigger a referendum are those relating to EU enlargement - precisely the issue on which France and other states are insisting on having a referendum. Such British particularism only serves to fuel the widespread suspicion that the UK wants to expand the size of the Union in order to weaken it.

The Bill also contains a 'declaratory' sovereignty clause which recalls that the UK is a member of the EU, and thereby recognises the primacy of EU law, only by virtue of its original Act of Accession in 1972. It is this aspect of the legislation which has induced Byzantine legal pedantry in the Commons' EU scrutiny committee, chaired by the veteran sovereignist William Cash. It is already clear that the Bill has failed in its main political objective of placating the large number of ultra-nationalists who populate the Tory backbenches. There is a delicious irony in seeing those MPs most vexed by the ceding of parliamentary sovereignty to the EU institutions perfectly happy to dish it out via binding referenda into the arms of a hapless electorate. Likewise, these same MPs continue to insist on the common law principle that no parliament can bind its successor as they busy themselves with ensuring that referenda will be entrenched in Britain's rickety constitution for all time. David Lidington, Minister for Europe, crowed that the Bill if enacted would be 'enduring' because the 'political cost' to any government which sought to repeal it would be too high. How right he is.

The Labour opposition will vote against the Bill for reasons which are not altogether clear. One hopes for some sharper criticism when the draft law reaches the House of Lords. The constitutional affairs committee of the European Parliament is to visit London in January to investigate what the Bill might mean for the constitutional order of the European Union. The UK has always tended to over-elaborate the transposition of EU directives into domestic law, but this Bill presages something a lot more damaging. Lisbon designates ten cases where EU decisions have to be ratified by national constitutional requirements. This Bill imposes many more unilaterally.

At the EU level, British ministers will be hard pushed in Council to fulfil their legal duty to commit their state. EU law making will be much delayed by these new British procedures. The UK is making itself an untrustworthy negotiating partner, particularly in matters of treaty amendment which is such a key driver of European integration.

At home, referenda will unleash the forces of populist nationalism. Facile coalitions of nay-sayers will form to block Britain's progress in Europe. Regular referenda on issues of mind-boggling complexity will further sour the British people's already febrile relationship with the Westminster parliament and its political parties. Nobody need delude themselves that an EU referendum in Britain can be won, at least for a generation. The blunt truth is that if this Bill becomes law no future EU treaty revision will be possible if the UK remains a full member state of the Union. Plan B anyone?

Andrew Duff is a UK Liberal Democrat MEP and President of the Union of European Federalists.