The legitimacy of Lisbon

Richard Laming

In a debate at University College London yesterday, the argument came forth from the anti-European speakers that the Lisbon treaty was illegitimate in a way that was not true of previous European treaties. It is hard to work out exactly what they mean – they were quite confused in their reasoning – but I think the argument rests on the supposed facts (1) that the Lisbon treaty is more far-reaching than previous treaties and (2) that the promised referendum on the treaty was not in fact held.

Of those two supposed facts, neither is true.

The argument that the Lisbon treaty is more far-reaching than previous treaties seems to rest on such features as the legal personality acquired by the European Union (but the European Community already had it), or the creation of the post of president of the European Council (but the European Council already had a presidency, changing hands every six months). Sometimes, the idea of a ratchet clause or some kind of self-amending feature of the treaty is floated as the reason for especial concern about the Lisbon treaty, but no such clause or feature exists.

The farthest-reaching features of the European treaties are (1) the supremacy of EU law over domestic law and (2) the introduction of Qualified Majority Voting. The first of those derives from the Treaty of Rome and the second from the Single European Act. Lisbon is less significant than either of these.

The argument about the promised referendum is slightly stronger. It is indeed true that a referendum was promised by all three parties on the previous constitutional treaty, and the explanation that the Lisbon treaty is different from the constitutional treaty, while factually correct, is a resort to the small print rather than a bold statement of principle. However, it remains the case that the Lisbon treaty passed into law because parliament voted for it. It is as legitimate as any other act of parliament; it is as legitimate as parliament itself.

In my speech in the debate, though, I went further than this. I wanted to lay out the extent of the political support for the Lisbon treaty and what it represents. In the UK, every general election since the Treaty of Rome was first signed has elected a majority of MPs in favour of membership (there have been 13 of them: 1959, 1964, 1966, 1970, 1974 twice, 1979, 1983, 1987, 1992, 1997, 2001 and 2005) and the referendum on the subject in 1975 produced a 2 to 1 majority in favour of staying in.

In Europe as a whole, the Lisbon treaty was supported by 27 national governments and the main opposition parties in 26 countries. In the European elections in June, 2/3 of the votes went to parties that supported the Lisbon treaty. If you look at the referendums that have been held, more votes have been cast in favour of the Lisbon treaty than against it (1.96 million compared with 1.46 million), and the same was true in the referendums on the constitutional treaty, too (26 million compared with 22 million).

Now, this is not to say that either the Lisbon treaty or the EU as a whole is loved. The narrowness of victory and the resort to the small print are clear proof of that. But it is to say that the claim that the Lisbon treaty lacks legitimacy or has been imposed in the teeth of popular opposition across Europe as a whole is false.

(British anti-Europeans might point to the British election results in June which showed a much more eurosceptic outcome than in the rest of the EU, and a future Conservative government would be the most eurosceptic of the 27 should David Cameron become prime minister next year. But the British picture is different from that of the rest of Europe.)

What interested me most in the debate was the reaction of the anti-European speakers to these facts. There was sheer disbelief that I might even think them relevant. But I do, because they are.

Opponents of the EU have got it into their heads that the EU is a conspiracy by the elites against the voters. Manoeuvres such as the on-again off-again referendum are proof of this, they say. The EU has the effect of being anti-democratic and is intended to be so. Why, then, would a pro-European speaker try to justify the legitimacy of the Lisbon treaty? Should they not revel in the fact that it is not? Quotes by Giscard D’Estaing are trotted out to support this view.

But readers of this blog will know, and perhaps share, its conviction that the EU is in fact advancing democracy and not undermining it. Giscard D’Estaing is not the sole representative of the pro-European idea.

I think that the problem the anti-European speakers had last night was that they were so convinced of their own point of view and their own analysis of the pro-European point of view that they could not comprehend this democratic alternative.

There are some opponents of the European Union who concede that supranational democracy is a nice idea but in practice cannot work in Europe. Last night was different, with the argument that supranational democracy was not even being tried. It is one thing to impose upon your opponents’ arguments your own interpretation of their conclusions, but it is quite another to impose upon them your own interpretation of their motives.

There are too many myths in circulation about the facts of the European Union. Let us not add to them myths about the politics of the European Union, too.

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