Despite a string of parliamentary defeats on the Lisbon Treaty, the Conservatives' prospects for shedding their historic difficulties over Europe are brighter than they have been for years. Successive "No" votes in three other member states - first on the Constitution, then on the Treaty - have aligned them with aspirations and dissatisfactions well beyond Britain and bought them a breathing space to develop a serious long-term European strategy.
Tory electoral tacticians will be tempted to heave a sigh of relief and revert to their traditional position of hoping that Europe will go away, on the grounds that focus groups rank it low on the list of voter concerns. A competing aim of eurosceptic activists, if only to outflank the UK Independence Party (UKIP) will be to get the leadership to earmark a few more policy areas for recapture from the EU, on top of the existing pledge on the Social Chapter.
Both these approaches should now be abandoned. Europe is not about to go away, with the European elections due next year and a number of issues, such as emissions trading and regional policy, crying out for a thoughtful Conservative response. As for the sceptics' addiction to shopping-lists of policies they want repatriated, by advertising a handful of difficult to achieve negotiating targets guarantees that we will get the worst of every European summit bargain. It worked once, when John Major obtained the opt-out on the single currency, but in that case he was able to hold the entire Maastricht Treaty to ransom and the result could not be circumvented: in normal circumstances, such victories are either illusory or far too dearly won.
The EU has no intention of leaving the Tories in peace. It is urgently casting around to nullify Ireland's rejection of the Lisbon Treaty quickly enough to narrow the options for the Cameron government that Brussels now expects. David Cameron's promise to hold a referendum on the Treaty if it has not come in to force by the time he enters Downing Street hangs like a guillotine over the ambitions of the euro-élites.How to escape, however, baffles the most resourceful mandarins. A revised Constitutional Treaty would take the member states back to square one, with a new round of drafting and ratification. The text would be a nightmare to agree, and long before the finishing post was in sight the British public would have killed off the project in a referendum.
Two other plans for rescuing the EU Constitution have been canvassed. The first - the exclusion of Ireland from full membership of the union - was quickly dropped. Its illegality apart, the expulsion of a member state would potentially be the thin end of the wedge of the dissolution of the EU.
A more plausible plan, championed by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France, is to visit on Dublin a package of charm, bribes and veiled threats in the hope of persuading the Irish government to call and win a second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty before the British general election. The incentives would include comfort about their take from the EU budget, protection of their right to a commissioner, a promise not to attack Ireland's low-tax regime and helpful declarations on neutrality and abortion. Unwritten assurances, however, would be mistrusted, and opt-outs written into protocols would count as treaty changes, triggering the fresh ratifications that integrationists so fear. Moreover, polls predict that a second referendum would suffer a defeat at the hands of Libertas, the "No" campaign run by the energetic businessman Declan Ganley -which could well break the government coalition.
The Irish government has dispatched a mission to Copenhagen to learn lessons from the Danes about how they fixed opt-outs and successfully re-ran a lost referendum. But the two countries' situations are not the same. Fear of being marginalised played a big part in Denmark's change of mind. That fear is less compelling once voters realise that they are not alone in their concerns. In the end, the Irish government will probably conclude that the Sarkozy plan, in its simple form, would be too risky to put to the test. Ingenious minds are therefore at work to find a way to induce the Irish judiciary to change its advice about the constitutional requirement for a referendum. For example, the treaty could be subdivided into those parts that the Dáil alone could ratify and those that need a national vote - an idea already floated by the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen. If the sensitive areas could be given some opt-outs, simultaneously with Croatia's accession as a member state, the thinking goes, there could be an Irish referendum on the opt-outs, while the rest of Lisbon's contents could be stuck in the Croatian accession treaty and ratified (solely by parliaments) in all 27 member states. This would be hard to defeat without seeming to be against enlargement. This could lead to a race against time as Croatia's accession runs up against the last possible date for the -British election, May 2010.
Such a devious and clumsy scheme would, of course, be outrageous. It should be unthinkable to incorporate what is, in effect, a constitution into the accession arrangements for a small Balkan state that has been in existence as a democracy for fewer than 20 years. But such is the desperation in integrationist circles that the idea of bundling the EU's enlargement and the Lisbon Treaty into a single package is distinctly appealing as a way of spreading confusion and discouraging opposition to the Treaty's constitutional clauses. For the option of actually listening to what voters are saying is not even on the edge of the radar scheme of these institutional zealots.
The desire to keep the essentials of self--determination was the common factor in the Dutch, French and Irish rejections. Euro-baro-meter, the EU's regular survey, reveals similar attitudes in the EU electorates that were denied a vote on the Lisbon Treaty (since the European project started, a dozen referendums have gone against the almost unanimous recommendations of the political élites).
The Conservatives are the natural beneficiaries of the new zeitgeist - if they are bold enough to take their opportunity. When their ideas of a more devolved Europe are dismissed by the faithful as "not on the agenda" of Continental leaders, they can reply that unchecked integration is demonstrably not on the agenda of Continental voters, and that the EU's self--proclaimed democracy is meaningless without reversible legislation and a sackable government, the two features it most notably lacks. Meanwhile, they can simply stand on their pledge to put the Lisbon Treaty to a referendum unless all 27 member states have ratified it.
If the Irish people hold the line until May 2010 and a Cameron government honours its pledge, the treaty will never come into force. It is not a document deserving of respect, and its demise would trigger the most fundamental European soul--searching since the collapse of the plan for a European army in 1954. Britain is too powerful to be ordered to vote again and "get it right next time". Instead, the chancelleries of Europe would have to react to a changed realpolitik, the more intractable for being brought about democratically and not opposed by the purposeful ideals of a Monnet or a Delors.
As the old project runs into the ground, the Conservatives' vision for Britain's place in a new Europe must appeal not just to British voters but to reformists throughout the Continent. A few things can be done unilaterally - such as better parliamentary scrutiny of EU laws and closer control of the decisions of ministers in the secretive EU council. But others, including the legal modifications necessary if the Tories are to implement their domestic social programme, would entail engagement with their European partners. The interface between European and domestic law is a complex subject, long overdue for proper analysis. The embarrassing spectacle has to end of policies being approved in Westminster and promptly overturned by the courts because of the unforeseen ramifications of conflicting laws.
The most important reform in the Conservatives' sights, however, is to lead a fundamental philosophical change in Europe. It is to bring about the retreat from bureaucratic centralism that the Laeken Declaration of 2001 was supposed to herald and which the EU Constitution so utterly betrayed. It would take two years of intense diplomatic preparation to have any realistic prospect of summoning an open, democratic European Convention to do what Laeken hinted at and the Philadelphia Convention achieved for America, redefining the union's powers to attune them to 27 countries' popular wills. From this process the single market would presumably survive intact. But foreign and defence policy, criminal law and social policy would probably defy a uniform solution, since the divide is deep between integrationists and those who believe the nation state to be the sole legitimate forum for such questions. This would mean giving substance to "variable geometry", with its opt-ins, "enhanced co--operation" and subsidiarity - that dire jargon, which today is devoid of content but which if brought to life would offer the union a chance of reviving the lost loyalty of Europe's citizens.
There is already one conspicuously successful example of live-and-let-live: the euro. The pros and cons of a single currency do not lend themselves to slick summary, but the economies of Europe's southern belt are patently being damaged, as is Ireland's, by a one-size-fits-all monetary policy, and if Britain had adopted the euro, our property boom and bust would have been even more extreme. In Brussels, opt-outs are regarded as frustrating temporary exceptions to pan--European unity. They should instead be regarded as a model of how Europe could be at ease with itself if only it listened to the people, not the state--builders.
The team the Conservatives need to assemble to think through their European strategy will have to combine battle--hardened Foreign Office hands, well-informed sceptics and single-market experts, chaired by someone who shares the country's settled will for constructive engagement with the EU without avoidable loss of autonomy other than in trade policy. It won't be easy, but such people do exist. The prize is to be at peace, as much with ourselves as with our neighbours.
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