Wednesday, 4 November 2009

No referendum, no trust

Those hoping for a sign that David Cameron is serious about changing Britain's relationship with the EU will be disappointed by today's statement.

Perhaps not so much over its proposals for a confrontational 'Sovereignty Bill' or plans to take back control over some policy areas from the EU.

But certainly over his unwillingness to consult people in a new referendum, and the worrying signals that sends out about the strength of his commitment to securing those changes.

New guarantees

In a speech this afternoon, the Conservative leader set out a new set of policies on the EU, after the final barriers were removed from the path of the Lisbon Treaty into law. These include:

- amending the European Communities Act 1972 to install a 'referendum lock', prohibiting any further treaty transferring power to the EU becoming law without approval by referendum.

- a 'Sovereignty Bill' to "make it clear that ultimate authority stays in this country, in our Parliament". Such a move would put UK law in direct contravention of Declaration 17 attached to the Lisbon Treaty, not to mention ECJ case law, which asserts the EU's legal primacy over its member countries.

This is what led recently to concern in Brussels over a similar assertion made by the German Constitutional Court.

- opposition to the 'ratchet clauses' within the Lisbon Treaty allowing further transfers of power to the EU without the need for a new Treaty. Less significantly, Cameron pledged to "change the law so that any use of a ratchet clause by a future government would require approval by Parliament." But since a government by definition commands a majority in Parliament, such approval would hardly be such a struggle to secure.

The more significant point here was Cameron's statement "We do not believe that any of these so-called ratchet clauses should be used to hand over more powers from Britain to the EU."

- opt-outs from parts of EU social and employment legislation, the Charter of Fundamental Rights and restricting the EU's role in criminal justice. Trying to take back any powers from the EU will cause interesting upheaval. The EU is simply not built to transmit power in that direction - rather, to steadily suck all power to the EU centre.

However, Cameron's idea of "limiting the European Court of Justice's jurisdiction over criminal law to its pre-Lisbon level" is hardly a restriction at all. S
ince, even before Lisbon was dreamt of, the ECJ had imbued the EU with the power to set criminal sanctions - a definitive power of statehood never set out in any EU treaty.

Confining the ECJ's activism to pre-Lisbon levels will not go nearly far enough, even towards Mr Cameron's own limited own objectives.

Referendum contradiction

However the key contradiction in the Tory leader's statement came when he first decried the need for an alternative referendum on his negotiating aims as having "no practical effect". Yet later said he would consider such a vote at the end of a first Conservative term of government if his negotiating aims hadn't been met.

"If those circumstances were to occur," he said - referring to a failure to secure the opt-outs he seeks - "we would not rule out a referendum on a wider package of guarantees."

But what "practical effect" does he think such a referendum would have at that point, but not either in advance of his negotiations to strengthen his hand, or afterwards in approval of the deal he had achieved?

After all, as we highlighted yesterday, is this not the man who in The Sun attacked Gordon Brown for having the "arrogant belief that he - and only he - has the right to decide what's best for Britain's future"?

The man who said "Giving people freedom and control over their lives is one of the things that makes me a Conservative."

And what more fundamental question of freedom and control is there than to decide for ourselves where governing power should lie?

All about trust

Cameron's proposals contain some interesting steps. From our point of view, they can only be first steps. But a journey has to start somewhere, and at least it appears he is facing in the right direction.

Talking today of the Labour and Liberal Democrat failure to deliver a promised referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, Cameron said: "It ranks alongside the expenses scandal as one of the reasons that trust in politics has broken down" - echoing a point the DM was making on this blog back in June.

Yet now he expects us to trust him based only on more words in a party manifesto? It's just not enough, and he cannot possibly expect it to be.

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