By Bruno Waterfield
European leaders are here in Brussels to tie themselves in knots over the prospect of a change to the Lisbon Treaty.
The agony and anxiety is not about the substance of creating a permanent “crisis management mechanism” (CMM) for the euro zone but the prospect that changing the EU treaty could lead to popular votes.
EU officials are working around the clock because all leaders – whatever their position on the Franco-German Deauville stitch up or an emerging Commission/Van Rompuy plan for a “two sentence, surgical amendment” – are absolutely agreed on one thing: There must be no referendums.
One thing truly unites the Evasion Union and that is stopping the terrifying possibility that voters might get the chance to have a say in referendums that would very quickly become judgments on how Europe’s elites have handled the economic crisis.
This is a frightening nightmare scenario for politicians who have premised their austerity measures and bank bailouts on keeping the public at arm’s length – or further.
How do we know that Germany’s demand – that countries embroiled in the CMM could lose their voting rights in Brussels – is nothing but a negotiating ploy?
It’s easy to tell because that demand would lead to a referendum in at least one country – possibly more. It is therefore only a bluff as no EU leader would trigger votes. “Can you imagine,” said one official, “the Irish Prime Minister going to voters and asking, after all that austerity, demanded by the EU, that the Irish offer to give up their national voting rights if it gets worse?”
It’s a bargaining chip, for the Evasion Union almost anything is possible but, on no account, must there be a referendum.
Here’s Jose Manuel Barroso, the European Commission President: “If treaty change is to reduce the rights of member states on voting, I find it unacceptable and frankly speaking it is not realistic. It is incompatible with the idea of limited treaty change and it will never be accepted by the unanimity of member states. And as you know a treaty change requires unanimity.”
All this is difficult enough to hammer out (and Germany needs to get it past the Karlsruhe court) but if agreed, with a mandate for a later meeting and signing off next spring, it can be done by Simplified Revision Procedure (SRP) with the great attraction that no referendums will be needed.
An amendment to the treaty under SRP will have to be ratified in national parliaments but most assemblies (certainly including the supine House of Commons) are nothing like as frightening for the Evasion Union as having to confront the public with argument.
I’ll sign off with this wonderfully surreal quote from Barroso, made to a meeting of some parliamentarians in Brussels the other day.
“It is worth looking back at the negative referenda which derailed the ratification process of the European Constitution. This told us something. It told us that European citizens were worried, about their jobs, their pensions, their education, their quality of life and their environment. And they looked to the EU for answers,” he said.
Only in the crooked world of the Evasion Union can no votes to the European Constitution be interpreted as a popular demand for “answers form the EU”.