Gordon Brown and David Miliband repeatedly insisted that the EU Constitution "has been abandoned." Brown even brazenly claimed that if it "were the old constitutional treaty, we would be having a referendum".
This has been one of the most widely disbelieved, but oft-repeated claims in recent British political history.
A YouGov poll for the Telegraph in October 2007 showed that 94% of people don’t believe the Government’s argument that the Treaty is different to the original EU Constitution.
Even Ken Clarke, (no raging eurosceptic) seems infuriated by this Brownie. In a moment of exasperation when the Commons debated the referendum he asked the Foreign Secretary:
“Will you stop all this nonsense about it being different from the constitution, because it is plainly the same in substance, and explain why it is better not to have a referendum but have it decided in parliament. You are getting into trouble because of the deviousness and, at times, ridiculousness, of the arguments you are using.”
So who do the Government think they are kidding? In fact, what are they even trying to claim?
The “Constitutional Concept”
The Government has never offered a list of changes of substance. Instead Gordon Brown hides behind a statement which the UK got other EU leaders to agree with, which states that the "constitutional concept” has been abandoned. Brown initially hoped to blur this a little and make it appear that other leaders had agreed that the Constitution had been dumped.
This cunning plan hit an immediate snag. Despite playing nice at the Summit, once they got home other EU leaders started to blab that the shiny new “Lisbon Treaty” is just the same as the Constitution, with a new cover. (See here for an amusing representation of this by Danish ‘no’ campaigners.)
The author of the EU Constitution
The European Commission
Pushed to say what the mysterious “Constitutional Concept” is, other than being called a “Constitution” on the front cover, Brown then argued that whereas the EU Constitution would have abolished the two old treaties and incorporated them into a new one, the Lisbon Treaty just amends the existing treaties. This, he claimed, meant that it was no longer a "Constitutional Treaty".
It would be fair to say that this is a rather thin argument. The idea that a referendum was originally promised for the legalistic reason that the EU Constitution stapled together the two treaties into one is tosh.
In its report on the revived Constitution the House of Commons EU Scrutiny Committee said that the Government’s claims that the new treaty no longer had the characteristics of a constitution were "less than helpful", and "likely to be misleading.”
It said: “We do not consider that references to abandoning a ‘constitutional concept’ or ‘constitutional characteristics’ are helpful and consider that they are even likely to be misleading in so far as they might suggest the Reform Treaty is of lesser significance than the Constitutional Treaty.”
Professor Steve Peers, EU law specialist, summarises the situation in a Statewatch report:
“The different structure of the Reform Treaty (i.e. amendments to the current EC and EU Treaties) as compared to the Constitutional Treaty means that the two treaties will look quite different. However, the content, as proposed in the draft mandate is largely the same.”
The idea was very deliberately to make the Treaty ‘look’ different in order to avoid referendums:
Former Italian Prime Minister Giuliano Amato
Valéry Giscard d’Estaing
Karel de Gucht, Belgian Foreign Minister
Jean Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxembourg
Anyone who actually looked at the texts side-by-side could immediately see that they were basically the same thing (indeed, many of the MPs who voted against a referendum never read the text - because they didn’t want to know).
Only 6 articles out of 448 in the original EU Constitution were actually deleted. These refer to things like the EU flag and anthem, which already exist. After attempting to sell this as a big change the Government seemed to become embarrassed, and gave up.
The idea that this is "a very different document" is a truly outrageous Brownie.
Even Philip Stephens, the trenchantly pro-euro FT columnist ‘fessed up that:
"The government did promise a referendum on the now defunct constitutional treaty; and, rhetoric and legal form aside, the Lisbon document is substantially the same as that rejected by the electorates of France and the Netherlands."
Does this Brownie matter? Yes, this is a big deal. If the “Lisbon Treaty” / Constitution is ratified it will:
• Make the European Court of Justice the highest criminal court for Britain - allowing EU judges to start setting our criminal law for the first time
As Michael Connarty, the Chairman of the parliament's independent European Scrutiny Committee, has said:
“Every provision of the Constitutional Treaty, apart from the flags, mottos and anthems, is to be found in the new Treaty. We think that they are fundamentally the same.”
I'm sure that Coffee Housers won't be surprised to hear that this wasn't the only Brownie the Government tried to get away with during the debates over Lisbon. As Liam Fox has pointed out, Brown falsely claimed that "The European Union does not have an official role in foreign and security policy". He told MPs that the Charter of Fundamental Rights "does not affect employment law" and that "it is not justiciable in British law", completely contradicting the conclusions of the House of Lords EU Committee which stressed that the "Charter will apply in the UK".
The list is almost endless. But one of the more galling Brownies was the Government's commitment to allow "line by line" scrutiny of the Lisbon Treaty in Parliament in return for not holding the referendum that it promised.
Rather than try and stick to this promise, Geoff Hoon did everything he could to keep meaningful discussion to a minimum. The Government held a series of vapid themed debates on matters which were of little significance to the Lisbon Treaty. For example it allotted an entire day's worth of debate to a discussion on climate change when the Lisbon Treaty only adds 6 new words on that subject - all of which were completely meaningless.
The Government also purposefully avoided debate on key topics such as asylum, immigration and defence - despite the huge changes being made in these areas. To cap it all off less than a third of the amendments tabled by MPs were ever discussed - in contrast to Maastricht where every single one was pored over in great detail.
But perhaps the biggest Brownie of all was back in 2005 when Brown told the Evening Standard:
“It's not as though this is being imposed on the country. People will have the chance to put their views."
The real reason Brown now wants to impose this, and wants to stop people from having a chance to put their views, is simple.
As Diane Abbot told the BBC just after the final commons vote:
“ I think that we should have a referendum because we promised one... but actually if you had a referendum it would be disastrous for the Labour Party because you would lose... Everyone knows that the Treaty is the same as the Constitution."
So much for courage in politics.