Lord Rees-Mogg on British Commitment to the EU
Editors' note: British Prime Minister Gordon Brown signed the Lisbon Treaty last week. I consider this treaty to be the latest step in strengthening the bureaucratic power of the European Union and weakening the sovereignty of each European country. Lord Rees-Mogg, a crossbench member of the House of Lords, explains…
In the 2001 general election, Tony Blair, as leader of the Labor Party, committed his party to a referendum. This referendum used to be called the constitutional treaty, and is now called the Lisbon Treaty. He included his commitment in his party's election manifesto. The Labor Party does not question that Blair made this commitment. However, the British government does maintain that the Lisbon Treaty -- in its final form -- is different from the constitutional treaty. Therefore, the government argues that the referendum pledge does not apply to the Lisbon Treaty.
This argument has not persuaded the majority of the British electorate. About two-thirds of British voters say that there should be a referendum. More broadly, there is something approaching a consensus that the Lisbon Treaty is the same in substance as the constitutional treaty. Many supporters of the treaty accept this in their hearts. They do not want a referendum, because they think they would lose it. They do not think that Tony Blair should have made the referendum commitment in the first place. But they do not actually believe that the Lisbon Treaty is substantially different from the original constitutional treaty to which the referendum commitment plainly applies.
The London view is that there will be a proposal for a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty when it comes before Parliament for ratification. But the government whips and Liberal Democrats will likely combine to defeat this proposal. Parliament will ratify the treaty and will vote against a referendum. Britain has had referendums on constitutional change in Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland, as well as the original European referendum, so one cannot say that constitutional referendums fall outside British constitutional practice.
Despite its promise, the government is refusing a referendum, because it believes the British people would reject the Lisbon Treaty.
There has been little discussion of the possible consequences of this. Many British voters think that they are entitled to a referendum because of the original manifesto promise. So long as everything goes well, they will, no doubt, go along with the Lisbon Treaty, although it provides Europe with a more centralized and bureaucratic constitution than most British voters would want. Yet the European Union has not acquired any popularity in Britain.
In the 20th century, there were at least four perfect storms in Europe that caused deep division: World War I, the slump of the early 1930s, the World War II, and the Cold War. One can view the European Union as the constitutional outcome of Europe's transformation in and after World War II. It grew out of the necessity to form a defense against the Soviet Union
Yet the EU will have great difficulty if the 21st century produces even one challenge on the scale of the four 20th-century challenges. As there were two or three comparable challenges in the 19th century -- including the Napoleonic wars, the year of revolution in 1848, and the rise of the Prussian Empire -- it seems likely that there will be at least one major challenge in the 21st century.
If Britain does not have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the British will not feel obliged to adhere to it. All states depend on public loyalty and support. Without a referendum to approve the Lisbon Treaty, the EU cannot rely on the loyalty of Britain in the event of a major European crisis.