John Major

Why we must veto this alien constitution

John Major says Tony Blair cannot accept the European constitution in anything like its current form, and demands a referendum on the matter

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The history of the Conservative party as the constitutional party has ensured that the issue of Europe is far more troublesome for us than for our political rivals. It was ever thus.

The early struggles over entry to the Common Market were fierce, although relatively gentlemanly. Dissent rumbled on in opposition and during Margaret Thatcher's premiership, though it was masked by the size of her parliamentary majority and the belief of the anti-Europeans that the prime minister was 'one of them'. This perception enabled the Single European Act – an integrationist measure that widened majority voting and endorsed the principle of ever closer union – to be passed relatively, but not entirely, painlessly. (I still treasure the memory of Norman Tebbit during late-night divisions berating euro-rebels for their disloyalty to the government: fate must have chuckled at the sight, knowing what was to come.) After the 1992 election victory, the replacement of an older generation of pragmatic Conservatives with an intake of eager, more ideological Members changed the perception of the Maastricht negotiation, and our UK opt-outs, from a triumph hailed with delight in 1991 to – in the eyes of some – an act of near treachery in 1992. Mayhem ensued.

I am a moderate on Europe. I believe that strident and exaggerated anti-European sentiments undermine our relationship with our EU partners and make it more difficult to achieve our policy objectives. I wish Britain to remain in the Union and am unpersuaded that it is serious policy to believe a transatlantic link can replace that membership. However, I do not favour unquestioning acceptance of every European ambition. I share the widespread unease about political integration, although, up to a point, it is inevitable. The question is: where is that point?

For nearly a decade, that question has been dominated by the debate about the euro. I dislike the political implications of a single currency and, over a decade ago, advocated a common currency, but sadly the idea was rejected. The euro is now in place and may yet become economically desirable for the UK. However, not yet – for the case is not proven.

New Labour's position on the euro in government is essentially the one they attacked so savagely in opposition in the mid-1990s as 'weak and indecisive': that is, we may go in if the economic circumstances are right. At the time, of course, the euro was still in the planning stage, and the Conservative government had no majority and a turbulent parliamentary party. If such caution then was 'weak', it beggars belief as to how that policy might be described today – as the Prime Minister and Chancellor circle one another warily like black widows uncertain whether to mate – years after the euro has become a daily reality, and when the government has such a huge and pliable majority in the Commons.

I recall these ancient political battles only to emphasise a point: few people can claim to have used as much political capital as I did in the cause of keeping Britain's options open in Europe. So it is with sorrow and anguish that I read the likely conclusions of the Convention on the Future of Europe chaired by the former president of France, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. If they are not materially changed, or withdrawn, they threaten far greater damage to our national interest than premature entry into the euro.

The Convention was set up with high objectives – to map out how European institutions and procedures could accommodate the entry into the EU of the Central and East European nations. Expansion of the EU is welcome – I argued for it throughout the early Nineties with Helmut Kohl as my only European ally and in the teeth of opposition from France – and it will create the largest (and richest) free-trade market ever known. It will also alter how the EU operates, and, after months of work and study, proposal and counter-proposal, draft recommendations are nearing conclusion.

Until the last few days, the recommendations have received little public attention. But they are bad. If unchanged (or unless rejected), they amount to a fundamental shift in the relationship between nation states and the EU: and the shift of power is from the nation state.

Such a shift should guarantee the opposition of any British government. However, following a speech by the Prime Minister in Cardiff last November, I am uneasy that damaging concessions may be smuggled through the current parliament in lieu of the euro referendum that the government will duck.

The Prime Minister spoke then of the changes facing Europe, and there was much in his speech with which I agree, especially in terms of his analysis of the past. But, when he turned to the future, he presented a false choice: simplistic, unconvincing and contradictory.

Indeed, his speech set out diametrically opposing views with equal vehemence. He says, 'We must end the nonsense of thus far and no further' while adding later, 'We cannot support a form of treaty incorporation that would enlarge EU competence over national legislation.' 'We cannot support....' Here, it seems, it isn't nonsense to say we can go no further.

Plainly, both the Prime Minister's statements can't be true. Taken together they are gibberish or an orator's trick to deceive. Upon an issue of this importance, the Prime Minister needs watching like a hawk: he is, after all, the man who, during the 1997 election, was 'in love with the pound'. In particular, the Prime Minister cannot be allowed to get away with discussing new proposals as a minor 'tidying-up' exercise. They are far more important than he yet admits.

At the heart of Giscard d'Estaing's proposals is the intent to replace intergovernmental decision-making with a new written constitution for a single European entity. The institutions of this European entity would exercise sovereign powers, with primacy over the laws of member states in a breathtakingly wide range of policy areas. Even worse, the existing protection of a national veto largely disappears, as almost all the decisions would be under a system of majority voting. This is utterly unacceptable.

So is the treatment of the concept of 'subsidiarity' that was introduced in the Maastricht Treaty: it was a principle that was intended to ensure that the EU acted only where it could complement national actions. Giscard d'Estaing turns this on its head and redefines the distribution of power by stating baldly that member states may take action in defined areas 'only if and to the extent that the Union has not exercised its [competences]'.

This is not restricted to trivial areas: it appears to include everything from transport to public-health policy, economic and social cohesion, and even freedom, security and justice, which, until now, have been the subject of separate intergovernmental agreement.

Under the draft proposals, a strengthened Commission will act as the dominant source of legislative action. This simply replicates the present position, although, in an apparent improvement, it is proposed that national parliaments should have a greater role in scrutinising prospective new laws. Unfortunately, they would have powers only to monitor and flag where they think the principle of subsidiarity has been breached. Moreover, it requires more than a third of national parliaments to register such objections before the Commission is obliged to undertake a review – and even then it can decide to 'maintain, amend or withdraw' their proposals. In other words the Commission can, if it chooses, ignore national parliaments across the Union and carry on regardless with only a temporary break. Although the nation states could appeal to the European Court, past rulings suggest that the Court would be unlikely to support the appeal. This is not the kind of entrenchment of subsidiarity for which I have called in the past, nor is it a safeguard in which I could have any confidence. This provision needs amendment, for it is all but worthless as it stands.

This tendency to take power to override national views must be seen in conjunction with the virtual abolition of the national veto – for it is expected that the final proposals will recommend that almost all future EU legislation will acquire only majority approval in the Council of Ministers; amazingly, the UK government seems to support this with only a few red-lined exceptions.

The proposed incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights illustrates a cultural difference between the UK and her European partners. For all other member states (with the possible exception of the Irish and the Dutch), the charter is seen as a protection of the citizen by offering redress against an over-weening Brussels establishment. But, for the UK, incorporation into the constitution is another enormously worrying step. Few can object to the principle of respect for human rights, but adopting this particular charter as part of UK law would open the doors for almost unlimited interference in the UK legislative and judicial process by courts outside our own borders. Indeed, the draft constitution already includes a clause which would allow the EU to legislate – and EU judiciary subsequently to rule – upon the admissibility of evidence in UK courts and other aspects of UK criminal procedure. We would be passing the fundamental control over the rules and safeguards of British liberty and justice to those outside our own democratic control – and with very different past legal traditions. Again, no.

One area about which I have profound concern is defence and foreign policy. Few could argue with the desirability of seeking common European positions wherever possible. But this is an area where national independence must be retained beyond question. It would be absurd, for example, if we were not entirely free to pursue our own policy on Iraq irrespective of the views of our European partners. It seems from the draft proposals that unanimity on decision-making appears to be retained as a general principle, although it is accompanied by propositions that need to be examined very carefully. What exactly is meant, for example, by the proposition now included that, once the EU has defined a common position, member states should all be bound to 'actively and unreservedly support' the Union's policy and 'refrain from any action contrary to the Union's interests or likely to undermine its effectiveness'?

This all needs to be examined with great care. Britain should not accept any interpretation that risks handcuffing us to a world view dominated by some on the Continent whose primary objective is to rival US power rather than support it. The Prime Minister's recent warning that Europe should not try to rival the United States is apposite: he should oppose any proposal that weakens the present position.

Taking all these elements together, it is hard not to reach the conclusion that those drafting this constitution are intent on establishing the framework for a European Union that would de facto act as a European state – with its own sovereignty, its own institutions, and its own claim to direct democratic legitimacy that overrides the established sovereignty of its members. This is exactly what I warned against ten years ago in an article in the Economist. In the wake of hard-fought battles over Maastricht, I pointed to the dangerous but fashionable view among many Continental politicians, that the fault with Maastricht was that it did not go far enough, or fast enough, in establishing the grand vision of full federation. I stated then that I believed such a view was profoundly wrong, and I am still of that belief today.

I warmly support greater co-operation across Europe, but do not believe that nations with different cultures, outlooks and traditions can be herded together comfortably under a common, decision-making process. It would be far better to restrict the proposals to the simplification and clarification of existing treaties and the changes essential to accommodate enlargement. If the proposals – after debate and, no doubt, amendment – still go too far, it will set nation against nation and put at risk much that the EU has thus far achieved. Too much ambition by Europe is the enemy of successful consolidation and co-ordination within Europe.

So, what will the Labour government's response be to all this? It is not yet clear, but, despite the sloppiness of the Prime Minister's Cardiff speech, I do believe the government will have no choice but to oppose many of the Convention's proposals.

It will not be easy. My own weary experience is that once a draft is placed before the Council of Ministers it is extremely difficult to rewrite it in any substantial way – and many changes can only be wrung out at the expense of some partial concessions. I fear the government is deluding itself – and the country – if it believes otherwise. I obtained concessions at Maastricht only because other EU leaders were convinced I would not sign up without them. It took hour upon hour of lively private meetings to persuade them of that – and only at the last moment did they accept it.

So, in reality, the Prime Minister may well be faced with the unenviable choice of going along with a constitutional settlement that enshrines a major new shift of power to centralised European institutions, or spoiling the party by simply saying no. I have used the veto in a formal vote, and I recognise it is not an easy position to take. But I do not believe that European political union is a destination we can accept. If a British veto is what it takes to achieve an outcome that is acceptable to us, if it is the only way to avoid a serious diminution of British self-determination, then that is what the Prime Minister must be prepared to do.

I do not, for one moment, accept that such an action would consign Britain to a future as a European outcast. I do not believe, and never have believed, that our only option is to hitch ourselves to a uniform destination with those in Europe who continue to seek further and deeper integration. My alternative is what Douglas Hurd and I described some years ago as 'variable geometry' – a flexible Europe where some countries might proceed further down the integration path than others, but within a set of rules that ensured everyone's interests were protected.

It may be sensible – indeed, unstoppable – to allow France, Germany and some of their neighbours to develop a closer political alliance if that is what they believe serves their own interests; but there is no reason why we, with our different culture and world outlook, should feel compelled to join them. And I suspect we are not alone. Some others among the existing EU members, and more of the accession countries, might welcome a more flexible, looser arrangement that maintained inter-governmental co-operation where it is sensible, but avoided loss of national sovereignty where it is unwelcome.

If this is our objective, however, it will only be achieved if the Prime Minister makes clear that nothing less will satisfy our interests – and that he is prepared to use our veto to block any treaty we could not accept.

Six years ago, I offered a referendum on the question of entry into the euro. I did so for constitutional reasons – because, to all intents and purposes, any move to a single currency was fundamental and would be irrevocable. It would affect everyone for ever, and, in my view, electors had the right to express an opinion on it.

The incoming Labour government adopted my policy of holding a referendum – without which we might already have been bounced into the euro at the wrong moment. The decisions to be taken on the outcome of the Convention on Europe could be as far-reaching, if not more so.

I do not know what the government's negotiating position will be on the proposals but I know what it should be. They must insist on unanimity on tax (where they should receive the support of Ireland, Denmark and Luxembourg); on defence and on foreign policy (although, as now, detailed implementation might be taken by qualified majority). They must maintain existing areas of unanimity unless there is a compelling case for moving to decision-making by qualified majority. They must not accept the incorporation of the Charter of Fundamental Human Rights. They must strengthen subsidiarity and give it more teeth. They must drop the unwise proposal for the Council of Ministers to elect a president of the EU for a term of up to five years. This is the barest minimum they must achieve.

I do not know how successful the government may be at amending these proposals – or even if they will seek to do so. What I do know is that it would be a tragedy if, through lack of public awareness, the government were able to use its parliamentary majority to smuggle through crucial changes in our constitutional status without most of the British people understanding what had been committed in their name. The danger would be that, once they woke up to the reality, the resulting tensions would create such a backlash as to force a real rupture with Europe as a whole. If that were to happen, those of us who have worked and hoped for a constructive European future based on co-operation between nation states would find that our hopes had been dashed for ever.

So, here is an issue that cries out for robust debate and examination. An issue that cannot be swept aside as a forbidden subject. An issue more fundamental than the Single European Act, the Maastricht Treaty or the Nice Treaty. Should there be a referendum?

Mr Blair says no, and cites the lack of a referendum on the SEA and Maastricht treaties to support his case. This is disingenuous from a Prime Minister who has changed the climate on referendums by scattering them like confetti since 1997.

I do not generally approve of referendums, and, unlike Mr Blair, have often argued that Parliament alone should decide. I made an exception on the euro because the case was so compelling. Is this not also true of the Convention proposals?

All depends, of course, on the outcome of negotiations. If the Prime Minister accepts anything close to the present proposals, then I believe there should be a specific referendum before Parliament legislates; this will happen in Ireland and Denmark and, most probably, in France, too. So unless Mr Blair rejects many contentious proposals (or obtains significant opt-outs to protect our position), there must be a referendum here in the UK. Once again, European politics is back on centre stage.