16 MAY 1992, Page 6


The salvation of British sovereignty: it all depends on plucky little Denmark

SIMON HEFFER Next week the Opposition parties will have one of the best opportunities to defeat the Government they are likely to get in this Parliament. At the vote on the Second Reading of the European Communities (Amendment) Bill, MPs must accept or reject the Maastricht Treaty. The official line is that it would be wrong, now Mr Major has won his mandate, for any Tories to question his judgment on Maastricht. Besides, the line has it, the deal he did remains one we can be proud of. That such defensive arguments are being deployed, however, suggests someone is worried.

It is hard to see why. The chances of the Commons defeating the Bill seem poor. Perhaps only 15 or 20 Tory MPs will rebel. Labour's Whips talk of ordering abstention, thus saving the Bill. Labour might, though, table an amendment. If that is to be worth- while, it will have to be one that attracts Tory support. An amendment for a refer- endum might be the best way to do this.

It is not romance or chauvinism that prompts disquiet on the Tory benches. The Maastricht Treaty is badly drafted, and it is sad that any government is seeking to ratify it in its present form. Its vaguenesses will leave ample opportunities for the Euro- pean Court to challenge almost any aspect of English law, once we have ratified and become citizens of `the Union'. Cabinet Ministers complain of how the Single Euro- pean Act forces the 48-hour week and the order to scrap passport controls on us. There is something insane about a govern- ment protesting about these specific points, but at the same time urging its MPs to sup- port a measure that will remove a great deal more of our Sovereign power.

If the Treaty is ratified, it will become harder to ignore the Brussels' diktat. Arti- cle 171 says, `If the Court of Justice finds that a Member State has failed to fulfil an obligation under this Treaty, the State shall be required to take the necessary measures to comply with the judgment of the Court of Justice.' If it does not comply, heavy fines can be levied. Because of the impre- cise drafting, which even lawyer Tory MPs of distinction have found impenetrable, the Court can have years of fun telling Britain that, in its interpretation of the much trans- lated and re-translated Treaty language, Britain is not `complying' on this or that.

Take, for example, Article 198e, from which we have no opt-out, on the European Investment Bank. This commits Britain to stumping up its share of funds for 'projects for developing less-developed regions'. This concept is still (despite the advent of President Hese!tine) contrary to Tory party policy. Or there is Article 8b, which allows a national of a Member State to stand in `municipal elections' in any Community country in which he 'resides'. Never mind what constitutes 'residence': this article is typical of the ambiguities of even the sim- plest words in the Treaty. The Court will no doubt relish interpreting what we, the French and the Germans each mean by `municipal'. It can be interpreted (and the Oxford English Dictionary supports this view) to include parliamentary elections. I would not bet on the Tory domination of Basildon lasting much longer should M. Le Pen be allowed a free run there.

One cannot expect opposition parties to be too concerned about this Tory-designed mess. However, Labour's agnosticism on the Treaty is crazy, intellectually and politi- cally. Genuine European socialists should oppose the Treaty because it omits the Social Chapter. Those who support Mr Smith's economic aims should oppose it because it includes the opt-out on a single currency. The Peter Shore/Tony Benn fac- tion, against surrender of sovereignty in principle, will be opposing it anyway. There is no member of the Parliamentary Labour Party who does not fall into one or more of these three categories.

Britain's Treaty opt-outs are contrary to the Liberal Democrats' belief in a federal Europe. The Nationalist parties will find that the Treaty does not encourage their aims to be independent `in Europe' ('God forbid' was how one Eurocrat described such an idea to me at Maastricht last December). The Ulster Unionists, looking back towards Enoch, should see it as con- trary to their deeply held belief in the prin- ciple of sovereignty. If all these parties join together in the No Lobby, the Government would be defeated. It would be a humiliat- ing defeat, because on 1 July Britain assumes the Presidency of the European Commission. Were Britain (or any other country, like sceptical Denmark) not to rat- ify, that presidency would have to be spent designing a new future for Europe. One can think of few finer contributions we could make to furthering freedom.

Yet, to see the vacillation of the Opposi- tion parties, you would think they had no desire to perform their fundamental politi- cal task of defeating the Government. They can vote against the Treaty, for different reasons, with clear consciences. Yet they seem determined not to do so. If that is their attitude, all talk of `broad movements of anti-Tory feeling' is claptrap. If they are not prepared to defeat the Government when the chance is handed to them on a plate, with enough Tory rebels to wipe out the Government's majority, they might as well go home to bed for the next four years.

The true Foreign Office view was to be seen in the advance — and repudiated — précis of the Queen's speech to the Euro- pean Parliament, allegedly the work of Mr Tristan Garel-Jones, whose genuine prose appears in our letters pages this week, It was feared the Queen would talk of the insignificance of our Parliament relative to Strasbourg. As it was, the Queen talked vaguely of the `necessary balance struck at Maastricht'. No one at the Foreign Office appears to have told the Sovereign that, once the Treaty is ratifed, she will remain Monarch, but become the ex-Sovereign.

It is the Foreign Office view, careless of sovereignty, that prevails. In one (or, if we are lucky, two) days next week the most important constitutional measure of the last 20 years will be propelled through the Commons. It will be passed by the urging on of many new members, most of them so inexperienced they do not know where the lavatories are. This is a measure that the Government dare not delay, for it knows that once its backbenchers come to under- stand what it really implies, how gross are its errors of drafting and how wide the pow- ers of interpretation and judgment that it surrenders to the European court, some could never bring themselves to vote for it. Many are already worried. True concern for the sovereign liberties of the British people should lead them to refuse this Bill a second reading. Failing that, the rebels must embarrass the Government so pro- foundly when the Bill comes back to a Committee of the whole Heuse (and when, in July, it goes to the House of Lords) that the Government is forced to think again.

We could, of course, rely on plucky little Denmark to save us, by not ratifying in its referendum on 2 June. Given the shortage of brave and perceptive MPs on all sides of the Commons, that may be our best hope.