Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Lisbon Treaty: Hard lessons and new opportunities

by Chris Ostrowski

We are at last about to draw a line under the ‘Lisbon saga’ that has overshadowed the EU for the past seven years. When Tony Blair promised a referendum on the old European Constitution in April 2004 he created a “referendum repository” in Britain that was filled with every conceivable anti-European argument. Debates about the internal structures of the EU were mangled with wild claims about immigration; arguments about the Euro were complimented by frenzied rhetoric about a super-state and a European army – all these claims were given cover by those who rightly cried: “You promised us a referendum”. Those of us that believe that we need a strong outward looking Europe, and more and better internationalism, have been stuck behind this repository. So now is the time to seize the opportunity to make the positive case for the EU and learn the lessons of the past seven years.

The two biggest lessons to be taken from this is not to produce a constitution which is so far reaching, inward looking and esoteric that the people give it a big raspberry (as happened in the European constitution); and not to promise a referendum on an issue that need to be discussed as part of the mainstream of political debate.

How right was Chris Patten when he heard of the Prime Minister’s promise to hold a referendum: “They [referendums] undermine Westminster……if you have a referendum on an issue politicians, during an election campaign say oh we're not going to talk about that, we don't need to talk about that, that's all for the referendum. So during the last election campaign [2001], the Euro was hardly debated. I think referendums are fundamentally anti-democratic…”

For those of us who believe that the enactment of the Lisbon treaty is well overdue and that it should not be put to a referendum there are two points that are worth making for just one final time: it is inconsistent to be against the Lisbon Treaty and in favour of enlargement – as the Lisbon Treaty is the enlargement treaty (take note the Conservative Party). A political party can’t claim to be acting in the interest of British parliamentary democracy if it wants a treaty to be put to a referendum (take note UKIP and the Conservatives) as the right to negotiate and agree treaties is earned by whichever party wins a general election to form a government. But these arguments - which never cut the mustard, and were only half heartedly made - will no longer be part of the debate.

As we leave the referendum repository and all its corrosive arguments behind, the political parties have the opportunity to make an election issue out of what sort of role we want Britain to play in Europe and what sort of role we want Europe to play in 21st century.

If voters can link the promises made in election manifestos with their actions on the international stage (particularly within the EU itself) then there are plenty of dividing lines that are ripe for a general election campaign. For example, if reducing carbon emissions and tackling climate change is in the Conservative Party’s manifesto then it is essential they answer how they will able to achieve this if they do not have the influence of all the related legislation that passes through the European Parliament.

Though there is still little widespread enthusiasm for the EU itself in Britain there is growing recognition amongst the electorate that issues have to be addressed internationally. So it’s not just on the issue of climate change where the Conservatives are vulnerable. We can not protect Britain from terrorism by acting alone; and most importantly - where this is now best understood - the health of our economy can not be preserved by our acting alone.

The challenge has always been how to illustrate that EU is responsible for some popular successes and more crucially how to show voters that if we had a Eurosceptic government then the consequences would be damaging to the British interest.

Two factors could help the government here. Firstly, and the difficulties involved in this can not be underestimated, it would be of great benefit if Government Ministers were to take the time and initiative to praise the EU and other member states individually when there is a success. It has always been the way that ministers blame ‘Brussels’ when something goes wrong and take the praise for the government when something is a success. But because we are faced with a Eurosceptic party which might form a government for the first time the risk of ‘losing’ a success to Brussels is actually diminished if the case is properly made.

For example if Ed Miliband returns from Copenhagen in December with a report on what has been achieved it would be a perfect opportunity to show how cooperation with the other EU member states and more specifically the action to be taken at EU level will contribute towards a climate change agreement. When Peter Mandelson engages with the European Commission on manufacturing it would be an opportunity to say. “We kept this plant open because of the way we worked with the EU and because of the influence we have – if we did not have such influence then British jobs would have been lost”. Rhetoric which praises the EU and incorporates ‘British interest’ story would help make the case for the EU and make the Conservatives open to attack on their European policy, and there are many opportunities: capping bonuses, closing European tax loopholes, stopping people trafficking and preventing ships carrying goods bound for Britain being hi-jacked. In all these areas there are likely to be positive developments over the next few months because of action taken at EU level but it will be up to individual ministers whether they take the opportunity to show the value of a positive relationship with the EU.

Secondly, the appointment of a permanent president of the Council is a moment that has rightly been seized by the Foreign Secretary to lay out the choice for Britain in 21st Century. A British office holder in one of the two key positions would be a tremendous boon for pro-Europeans in Britain today. Whether it Tony Blair as President of the Council, David Miliband, Paddy Ashdown or Chris Patten as the Representative on Foreign Affairs, it would reinforce how a strong Europe is in Britain’s interest. Again the Conservatives are vulnerable – while the Lib Dems and Labour have put forward candidates of the highest calibre, the Conservatives have attacked both the position and all potential candidates from anywhere. If a British official is chosen then the time between their appointment and the general election can then be used to show how the Conservatives refusal to support the office holder was damaging to the national interest and an attempt to reduce Britain’s influence in the EU and on the world stage.

Chris Ostrowski was Labour’s Candidate in the Norwich North By-election and a candidate for the East of England in the 2009 European Parliament Election

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