Mr Brown goes on about integrity and Britishness - now he must prove he means it

Last updated at 00:54 28 June 2007


Over the past few weeks Gordon Brown has repeatedly promised to listen to the people. He has often spoken about deepening our democracy.

He has banged on about his integrity. And he has waxed lyrical about Britishness.

It so happens that there is something which almost miraculously brings together all these issues.

I am speaking of the European Union's new constitutional treaty, which was agreed in outline in the early hours of Saturday morning.

This so-called negotiating mandate replaces the European Constitution, which was voted down by the French and the Dutch in 2005.

Most analysts agree that it is substantially the same document. But don't just take their word for it, or mine.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor who oversaw the negotiations in Berlin, says the "fundamentals of the Constitution have been maintained in large part".

Her foreign minister agrees the new treaty will "preserve the substance of the constitutional treaty".

According to Finland's Europe Minister Astrid Thors: "There's nothing from the original institutional package that has been changed."

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, concedes that the new treaty contains 90 per cent of the old one that was rejected by the French and the Dutch.

Most tellingly, and most incontrovertibly, the arch-Europhile and former President of France, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, has said that the new treaty is a revival of the European Constitution, only rather more complex.

He should know what he is talking about since he wrote the original document.

So, please, don't let us have any pretence about this.

The new treaty or negotiating mandate is the old Constitution shamelessly served up in a slightly different form and with only a few unpalatable ingredients such as a European flag and a national anthem taken out.

In 2004 Tony Blair promised the British people a referendum on the European Constitution. This never took place because it was turfed out by the French and Dutch.

But you would naturally assume that the new treaty, being so much like the old one, would also be put to us in the form of a referendum. You would be wrong.

How can this be? Has our new Prime Minister not gone on ad nauseam about listening to the people and extending our democracy?

Would you not expect a man who has emphasised his honesty and integrity, rightly I believe, to honour a pledge to call a referendum?

And shouldn't we have justifiable hopes that this selfappointed champion of Britishness might put on more of a show of defending British sovereignty?

It is a fascinating irony that the man who has identified himself more than any other modern politician with promoting the idea of Britishness should be associated with a treaty that deals British independence a heavy blow.

Mr Brown's argument is that the negotiating mandate is, in fact, a very weakened, milk-sop version of the old treaty.

Besides, the British Government has achieved opt- outs and exceptions - those famous "red lines" - that safeguard us from the most disagreeable aspects of the new treaty.

This, alas, is not true. Take, for example, the proposal to have a new European president and a new European foreign minister.

The latter personage, to be called the High Representative, will head a new European diplomatic service that may have as many as 100 EU embassies throughout the world, not to mention a diplomatic staff of thousands.

He will chair meetings of the foreign ministers of European countries - as though he is their superior - and have a presence at the United Nations.

Who can doubt that this is a gigantic step towards a common European foreign policy? The Government says it has secured a declaration in the new treaty that safeguards the rights of member states.

Some authorities question the legal force of this footnote.

In any case, whatever validity it may have, the independence of the British Foreign Office is bound to be weakened by the existence of a European foreign minister with considerable resources claiming to speak for the entire Union.

Isn't this a very big deal indeed? A country that cannot shape its own foreign policy is scarcely a country at all.

It is one of several revolutionary proposals in the new treaty that either have inadequate "red lines" or none at all.

The EU is to get a "legal personality" with a right to sign treaties as though it were a single country.

The British veto will be abolished in 40 areas, including migration, energy and transport.

But let us pretend that I am wrong. There is no need to worry. This is mere tidying up. Such fears are mere paranoia.

Even if all this were true, there should still be a referendum.

The 2005 Labour manifesto, on which this Government was elected, stated that the European Constitution would not take control away from Britain of "key national interests like foreign policy, taxation, social security and defence".

Nonetheless, the British people would be invited to make up their own minds in a referendum.

The first part of this proposition is exactly what the Government is saying now. In its view, the new treaty does not threaten these interests any more than the old one did.

But whereas under the old constitution we were to be given the opportunity to decide for ourselves, no such right is extended to us under the almost identical new treaty.

Could someone tell me where the logic is in that?

Tony Blair agreed to a referendum because the Tories had been campaigning for one vigorously and in so doing were improving their standing. A referendum on the Constitution was - and remains - overwhelmingly popular.

With a general election approaching, Mr Blair wanted to take Europe out of the electoral reckoning, and to deprive the Tories of by far their strongest card.

Mr Brown, it seems to me, faces the same danger, only more so. He may genuinely believe that the red lines offer Britain protection.

But he must also appreciate that there are powerful arguments to the contrary, and he should realise that the Tories will deploy these arguments to considerable effect.

Here is an issue around which David Cameron's somewhat directionless party can at last gather and win popular support.

I would like to think that Mr Brown will see on reflection that calling a referendum would advertise those virtues of integrity and honesty about which he has been boasting, while confirming his democratic instincts and natural feeling for British values of fair play.

At the very beginning of his prime ministership he will surely not want to lay himself open to the charge that he is reneging on a referendum pledge made by a Government of which he was a part.

But even if he is prepared to disappoint us on this count, he will surely not want to be outmanoeuvred by the Tories.

This new treaty, which even leading Europhiles admit is essentially the same as the old, could provide them with the very cause they so desperately need.

They could reasonably portray Mr Brown as inconsistent to the point of shiftiness and claim with some plausibility that he was selling his beloved Britain and his notion of Britishness down the river.

Why would he want to let them do that? Why put himself needlessly at odds with the Eurosceptic Press?

Why risk so much to defend his predecessor's silly parting shot? Calling a referendum would be prudent and right.

How tragic it would be - and how unnecessary - if Tony Blair's parting shot ended up by doing down Gordon Brown.

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