Yesterday an alliance consisting of Conservative, rebel Lib-Dem and rebel Labour MPs failed to secure a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty; this is generally considered a European Union constitution by the back door.
So should we have a public vote on the Lisbon Treaty?
This question is easily answered by argument from first principle.
Like it says in the US constitution, legitimate governmental power can only derive from the will of the people expressed through plebiscite. The public votes, and thereby they grant authority to parliament to rule over us for a fixed maximum period. Parliament can delegate its power to executive authorities, but parliament cannot extend its own term and any power it delegates dies when it does. Likewise, no parliament can legally bind any successor parliament because its authority does not exceed its term.
The only legitimate way for a delegation of authority to survive the death of a parliament is for that authority to be granted directly by the people in general plebiscite. If Europe is, in anyway, to rule over us beyond the term of one parliament, this can only be legitimate if put to a referendum.
Let’s look at some of the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty.
For the first time it gives the European Union “legal personality”. That means the Union itself can enter into treaties with foreign powers. It makes us all Citizens of Europe; it creates a Europe-wide military organisation and may take us to war (although not to conduct naked aggression, but for peace-keeping and other loosely worded aims.) It forces us to defend all other members of the Union using “all means in our power”, and, our old favourite, it gives the Union total and exclusive control over who fishes in our territorial waters. Slightly spookily it changes member “countries” into member “states”. That’s a trivial word change and seems to be inspired by the United “States” of America. The Treaty can force us to change our domestic laws to “approximate” the laws of other members – for general convenience.
There are also escalator clauses in the Treaty. They can add new bits to it! There is the safeguard of new items requiring national ratification by each member state. However article 48, clause 7, provides a slippery little codicil that lets the European Council change the voting rules where it sees fit so that where previously unanimity was required now only the infamous qualified majority voting shall apply. This clause is safeguarded by a condition that it does not apply to defence and military measures, but still means that the rug can pulled from under us in many areas.
On the plus side, there is a get-out procedure. Any member can resign from the Union. It takes two years, which the Union can extend if they want, and during the “leaving” period the withdrawing member state cannot vote on provisions affecting its departure.
Of course we have also elected a European parliament.
That’s a laugh! Who’s your representative in the European parliament? Do you know? I don’t know mine. If you know yours, congratulations – you’re a political wonk! The EU parliament is a pointless talking shop. It does not have sovereign power over the Council or the Commission. It is “consulted” on various matters but doesn’t have its hands on the levers of power. It provides no legitimacy – only the illusion of such.
It should be pretty clear that the Lisbon Treaty is intended to, and will, exercise power over us beyond the life of the parliament we have elected. It should also be clear that the Treaty will not have legitimate authority unless it is endorsed by a public referendum.
Of course we did have a referendum, back in 1975 – to endorse our continued membership of the EEC which we’d joined in 1973. You remember voting, don’t you? Apparently two-thirds of us said yes to the EEC, which was a purely economic organisation concerned with money, jobs and food. Of course to have voted in that referendum you must have been born before 1957, later than that and you have been disenfranchised. Prime Minister Gordon Brown mentioned this referendum when he was defending the Lisbon Treaty in parliament yesterday. “The people have already had a referendum,” he said, or words to that effect. That’s a laugh, I was too young to vote. How many of you weren’t even born? And it was a referendum on a completely different subject anyway.
No. We should have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, otherwise it has no legitimacy. And we should have occasional referendums on our membership of the EU, say every five years, just to confirm we still want to be a member.