Scotland is heading for a referendum in the not too distant future, but this one is not on the proposed new AV voting system, or on the constitutional status of our nation within the UK, but on a newly proposed European Union treaty.
The Lisbon Treaty was supposed to be the treaty that put an end to the wranglings that had arisen over the delivery of a European Union Constitution. In December 2007 European Unions declared that “we expect no change in the foreseeable future.”
Less than a year after the Lisbon Treaty came into force however, the EU is talking of a new treaty, with discussion restarted by President Nicolas Sarkozy of France and the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Last week they declared that, in order to deal with future debt crises, “it is necessary to revise the treaty”. Germany was demanding that spendthrift countries in breach of the euro zone’s fiscal limits be threatened with losing their EU voting rights, imposing still greater fiscal rigour in future.
All countries will want only a limited treaty change, perhaps one that applies only in the euro zone. But past experience suggests that such keyhole surgery may prove impossible. The European Parliament will want more power. Ireland will almost certainly have to put any new treaty to a referendum, a dreaded prospect for the government there. Here in the UK the Conservative-Liberal Democratic Government has set out proposals, amending the European Communities Act of 1972, giving people a vote before any future powers are transferred to the European Union. Eurosceptics, especially those on the Conservative back-bench, may also seize on the new Treaty and associated referendum to call for a repatriation of powers from Brussels.
Many thought it would be best to wait for bond markets to calm down before tinkering with the rules. But others say that if treaty amendment is needed, it is best to get on with it. A new text would best be negotiated before the 2012 French presidential election, and ratified before Germany’s 2013 election, with a referendum here in the UK.
The European Union may not be in a state of permanent revolution, but it is in permanent renegotiation, and when the Scottish electorate heads to the polling stations they will be voting not solely on the minutiae of the new Treaty, but on the wider issue of our relationship with the European Union as a whole. This is a vote which many quarters will view as being long overdue.
Alex Orr is Public Affairs Director at Indigo and a board member of the European Movement.