Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

My view on the Lisbon Treaty, David Cameron and the EU

So the Czech President has signed the Lisbon Treaty which means it will likely to come into force in a few weeks time. The big political question now is what David Cameron will do. Apparently he will make an announcement tomorrow or later this week depending on who you believe.


I had an interesting discussion with my fellow "House of Comments" podcaster Stuart Sharpe from off of Sharpe's Opinion on Twitter earlier on. I tweeted a couple of things asking what Cameron would do next given his previous "cast iron" commitment to a referendum. Stuart tweeted: "I don't really think it's fair to stab someone in the back and then dance on their grave, you see." and then linked to this post he did last month where he suggested that neither Labour or the Lib Dems have stuck to their pledges on a Lisbon referendum. He therefore thinks it is unfair for members of those parties to now use the Lisbon Treaty as a stick with which to beat the Tories.

I can see his point and if I was a Tory and/or Eurosceptic I would be pretty annoyed about this too. In fact I am annoyed about what Labour and my own party have done over this issue but my thinking on it is a bit too involved for the 140 characters that Twitter allows. I did try and outline it in a series of tweets but I will have a proper go here.

Firstly, I am in favour of us having strong ties with Europe. I think it is good for us and makes us stronger as a nation. I am not hugely wedded to the EU as it is constituted at the moment not least because of the lack of accountability of the European Commission. I don't like the way the commissioners are all appointed and it is often seen as a reward or sop for domestic politicians of the various member states. I think it would be much better if it was more democratically accountable. I also think that the fact the accounts have not been signed off is very bad and gives the impression of corruption even if this isn't warranted. I really don't understand why this has not been addressed more fully. However I also think that the arguments above can be and are overplayed by opponents of the EU. The Council of Ministers which consists of ministers from each country is democratic in so far as the ministers are elected in their respective countries. MEPs are also elected and although I don't like the specific proportional system used for this in the UK, it is better than First Past the Post and they are representative.

As for the Lisbon Treaty and how things have played out with that in the last year or two I have a few points:

I think that the EU hugely over complicates these treaties and makes it difficult for non-technocrats to understand them. I certainly haven't the time or inclination to wade through it. I don't really understand why they can't keep it simple. Something like the US constitution is clear, concise and simple enough to be understood by schoolchildren - indeed it is taught to them in schools. Does anyone seriously think that say the Maastricht Treaty or Lisbon could be taught in a similar way?

Unfortunately, that is not how these things are done in Europe (perhaps more learned people than me could explain why in the comments) so because it is so complicated, it was not a good idea to pledge a referendum. How many people would read and fully understand it before voting? That is where parliament should earn its money by debating the treaty and voting on it.

However the Lib Dems and Labour did pledge a referendum and because I think parties should honour their pledges, we should not have gone back on this. I know both parties had their arguments: "It's no longer a constitution" in the case of Labour, "The real question is in or out" in the case of the Lib Dems but to most people it seems like a reneging on pre-election promises. I find it very hard to argue against that.

Now that we have done though, I actually think our current policy is more sensible than our original one. The ongoing saga of Europe needs to be settled. The last referendum was 35 years ago and on a completely different question.

I genuinely think that a referendum on in/out would be close and may go "out". I would not want to see this outcome but I am a democrat and we need to allow the public to make up their minds on this in order to settle this issue at least for the next political generation.

As for David Cameron, well nobody forced him to make a "cast-iron" pledge in The Sun about a referendum on Lisbon with no caveats. That was his decision and so if he now goes back on that he is going to have to expect some flak, not least from many of his own party members for whom this is a vital issue and who may well feel betrayed.

11 comments:

blindcyclistsunion said...

Unfortunately, that is not how these things are done in Europe (perhaps more learned people than me could explain why in the comments)

NB : I am not more learned.

I expect that to a certain extent this arises as a result of it all being 'designed by committee', which is well known to be a disastrous methodology.

You can only make this worse by applying decision by consensus.

Of course, that could be what they want you to think. Technocrats are crafty like that. :)

David Weber said...

"I don't like the way the commissioners are all appointed and it is often seen as a reward or sop for domestic politicians of the various member states. I think it would be much better if it was more democratically accountable."

This sums up in a nutshell one of the biggest cons about the whole European debate at the moment.

The Tory front bench likes to play to the Eurosceptics at the moment, but what you see, and I see, and everyone should see if the debate were carried out on a more mature level, is that the EU could easily become more democratically accountable through a simple reform on the *national level*.

Make Commissioners subject to election. There's no reason why the government can't do it, it would merely require the simple arrangement of an election, which the government could be bound by law to make their appointment. The only reason why no party considers this is that it would constitute such a transfer of power away from government.

David Weber said...

Incidentally, I disagree that closed-list is better than FPTP. They're both equally dreadful -- Closed list has no level of individual accountability or direct representation, FPTP has no moderation of outcomes or mechanism for transferable voting.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps it has something to do with the continental tradition of contempt for what Nietzsche called "offensive clarity" - he was referring to John Stuart Mill's prose style at the time..

Kalvis Jansons said...

Petition to: have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

http://petitions.number10.gov.uk/Lisbon-ref/

David Weber said...

@Kalvis -- A bit late, isn't it?

Brian E. said...

So the other parties haven't kept their promises and this means that the Tories don't need to keep their promises either!
If enough people feel as angry as I do and vote for UKIP, it'll probably mean another Labour government. Hardly important if we were merely going to replace one lot of liars with another.

Jon Worth said...

"I also think that the fact the accounts have not been signed off is very bad and gives the impression of corruption even if this isn't warranted. I really don't understand why this has not been addressed more fully."

It's because no-one has any incentive to do anything about it. For the books to be signed off the Commission would need more staff to go around snooping on Member States and checking how Member States spend EU cash... and no Member State wants to give the Commission money to come snooping on them. So hence no progress.

The money the Commission itself spends directly on projects is generally OK, it's the stuff that goes via Member States (and disasters like the rural payments agency) that's the problem.

David Weber said...

"So the other parties haven't kept their promises and this means that the Tories don't need to keep their promises either!"

It's not the Tories breaking their promises -- can't you see the playing field has changed now? What use would a retrospective referendum be? In a word: none.

There may well be other Eurosceptic policies the Tories can look at implementing -- but they are right to move on from the referendum, because the referendum wouldn't be any use at all. What right would we have to tell the 26 other EU member states how the EU should work for them, given that we agreed to ratification at the time along with the rest of them?

The Heresiarch said...

Why is it so complicated? I'm tempted to say it's because the complexity so effectively conceals from the electorate what's really going on.

Open Europe the other day were highlighting an almost unnoticed clause by which, at the request of a member state, anyone can be tried for anything that is a crime in that state, in any other state. I had to rub my eyes over this, and I'm not 100% certain; but I think it means, for example, that if I deny the Holocaust in Britain, where it isn't a crime, and the German government got to hear about it (perhaps my views were viewable on a blog in Germany) they would be able to demand I be put on trial in Britain for something that is no crime under English law, and punished with whatever penalty German law prescribed.

This is quite extraordinary, and completely alien to any known democratic principle; yet there has been zero public debate, or even awareness, of it, because it's buried aware somewhere in a boring treaty no-one reads.

Alex said...

Maybe a little late, but here's why EU treaties are so complex and not comparable to the US Constitution:

1. They are treaties not a constitution. As I understand it, the original EU constitution would have been a lot simpler (though still not as simple as the US one). It would make more sense to compare EU treaties to something like NAFTA.

2. In terms of the Lisbon treaty, it is a treaty that amends past treaties, and as such is going to be filled with legalese anyway.

3. The Lisbon treaty and the US constitution have very different histories behind them. The US Constitution was written to unite 13 former colonies with common histories into one union. EU treaties on the other hand, aren't there to form a new country (despite what the Europhobes would have us believe), but to reform and improve on an institution, and the treaties have to be agreed by 27 different countries, with different histories, cultures and legal systems. Hopefully you can see the problem now. You could compare it to something like the health care bill just passed in the US House of Representatives (which is something stupid like nearly 2000 pages long!), although even that doesn't work because all 50 states are united as one country, and so there's not the fundamental differences as there is for the EU treaties.