At his press conference today with the Dutch PM, Tony Blair started to explain why the Government thinks it can duck out of its promise to hold a referendum on the forthcoming treaty to replace the EU Constitution.
After several months of 'positioning' baloney about how the Government was still "absolutely" committed to a referendum on "the EU Constitution" - although everyone already knew that the new text would definitely not be called a "Constitution" - Tony Blair has finally started to roll out the Government's line that the new "amending treaty" will not require a referendum.
The key difference, and the reason we won't be getting a referendum, Blair said, is that the forthcoming document will simply be "amending" the existing treaties.
I think in the words of the paper that was presented to the Dutch parliament that we should go for an amending treaty, but not a treaty with the characteristics of a constitution, and that is I think an important position and it is one that we would endorse.
But hang on a minute - the EU Constituion was itself "amending" the existing treaties. In fact that was the Government's own argument at the time. As Peter Hain famously explained, three quarters of the text was carried over from previous treaties:
"This is a combination of a tidying up exercise, because more than three quarters of the clauses in the new Constitutional Treaty are just transposed from previous treaties... three quarters of it is tidying up, because the existing clauses in all these many treaties that people find hard to get to grips with and understand, are being transposed in to a single text that is clearer for people" (BBC Politics Show, 18 May 2003).
Nor can it be the name "Constitution": during the row over whether there should be a referendum in 2003/04, the Government always insisted on calling it the "constitutional treaty" or just the "treaty".
So what's the difference? Next came an interesting Jesuitical argument from Blair:
But there is all the difference really in the world between a constitutional treaty that is an attempt to consolidate, to write all the rules of the European Union to give rise to a whole new set of legal principles, and an amending treaty within the tradition of existing European treaties that makes the rules of Europe work more effectively... it is not just about the presentation of this, I think that is clear from both of us. You have to take an in principle decision first of all that it is going to be an amending treaty rather than a constitutional one.
...what we are saying is that the characteristics of a constitution is what has to come out so that what you are left with is a genuine traditional rule-making treaty that allows Europe to work more effectively.
Other than being called "a Constitution", what exactly are the mysterious "characteristics of a Constitution" which are so important here? Blair talked about how the Constitution had given "rise to a whole new set of legal principles". But in fact last time round the Government insisted this was not the case. As Denis MacShane argued:
“If, hypothetically, there was such a fundamental change in Britain’s relationship with the European Union that a referendum was justified, then you would have to look at it. But there is absolutely no evidence of this” (BBC World at One, 16 October 2003).
Jack Straw also argued that: "What it won't do is shift the balance of power between member states and the union, except to a degree, back towards member states" (9 September 2003).
Question: Were they wrong then, or wrong now?
And why are we having a new treaty anyway? Ah, of course - the old chestnut: it is "needed to make enlargement work." Blair argued today that:
It is important we go back to the idea of a conventional treaty where the idea is to make Europe more effective, work more effectively because we now have a Europe of 27, and then 28 and so on countries rather than 15.
Never mind that - as the Economist pointed out last week - the EU is actually passing legislation 25% faster since enlargment. As the Charlemagne column pointed out:
If these doom-merchants were right, one would expect to spot a number of obvious things in
What's so depressing is that Blair has, from time to time, shown signs that he sees what a waste of time this all is. But through weakness of will, and a failure to really intellectually engage, Blair has drifted into doing exactly what he promised he would not:
"What you cannot do is have a situation where you get a rejection of the treaty and bring it back with a few amendments and say, Have another go'. You cannot do that" … "If the British people vote no', they vote no'. You can't then start bringing it back until they vote yes"
(Tony Blair, Independent, 23 April 2004).
But according to the PMOS today:
Asked if this meant there would be no referendum on the treaty sought by Mr Blair, the spokesman responded: "In the same way that for the past 50 years other treaties of the kind we are envisaging haven't needed a referendum in this country."
Will Brown learn from Blair's mistakes? Will he really go out and campaign against a referendum duing his first defining weeks in office? Watch this space.