The appalling handling of the Lisbon Treaty sowed the seeds of Brexit

The appalling handling of the Lisbon Treaty sowed the seeds of Brexit

Now that the dust has settled on the 2016 EU Referendum it is worth looking back a few years at the lead in to the plebiscite. I would argue that it was the arrogant way in which Labour handled the 2007-08 Lisbon Treaty in Britain which helped set the conditions for what followed less than a decade later.

The disillusionment with the ‘European Project’ had already set in some years before. The 1975 referendum on whether or not to remain in what was then the European Economic Community (the EEC) saw a two to one vote to stay in what was pitched to the British people as a “Common Market”.  Although some warned at the time of movement towards a much larger political project, these warnings were largely dismissed as outside of the political mainstream.

Then in 1992-93 came the great ructions within the Conservative Party over the Maastricht Treaty. This, of course, established the European Union (the EU), of which the British public were to become citizens. Crucially, the Treaty was not put to a referendum but was left to months of tortured debate progressing through Parliament and seriously dividing the Conservative Party in the process.

Further EU Treaties then followed, including Nice and Amsterdam. I made my maiden speech in 2001 against the former. It is always worrying when politicians start quoting from their own speeches but that night I did say this:

“The British people were essentially told that they were assenting to a free trade area – a common market – and that is what they endorsed in 1975.  The further we move from that position, the greater the risk that we shall exhaust their patience with all things European. We are an historically tolerant people, and we are willing to negotiate and co-operate, but we will not be subsumed by a foreign superstate that ignores our traditions and undermines our laws.”(Hansard, 4 July 2001, col 308).

Again, both those treaties were ratified by Parliament, backed with large majorities, but without a referendum. The centralising ratchet then gathered pace with the so-called European Constitution, which, after failing to generate popular support, was withdrawn and carefully repackaged into the Lisbon Treaty of 2007-08.  There was an iron determination among its architects that this revised version should not be subject to a referendum (save in Ireland, where it was constitutionally mandated and actually turned down at first asking, before Ireland was invited to vote on it again).

Having previously promised a referendum, Tony Blair and then Gordon Brown’s Government stuck to the fiction that the Treaty was different to the EU Constitution, despite the House of Commons European Scrutiny Committee going through both with a fine tooth comb, and ruling that they were “substantially equivalent”. An ICM poll in August 2007 showed that 82% of British voters (and even 80% of Labour voters) favoured a referendum on Lisbon but, yet again, the British people were denied a say. Instead, working alongside William Hague who was Shadow Foreign Secretary, I recall spending fourteen nights debating the Lisbon Treaty in Parliament – aware that we couldn’t change a single punctuation mark! For me, this was the straw that broke the camel’s back and convinced me that one day we should leave.

Because the Lisbon Treaty was handled so appallingly we said at the time that “We shall not let matters rest there” – and we didn’t. In the Coalition Government which followed this manifested itself in the European Union Act 2011, which mandated a referendum if any future government were to recommend a treaty passing further powers from Britain to the EU. This ‘referendum lock’ was now in place to prevent another Lisbon – but much damage to public trust had been caused along the way.

When David Cameron subsequently promised an In/Out referendum in 2013 – partly in response to external pressure from UKIP and growing internal pressure from his own backbenches – he no doubt thought he could win. However, he was doing so against an undercurrent of increasing disillusionment about the EU among the British electorate, which had already been fomenting for some years, with the EU’s Eurobarometer polling series consistently showing the UK as among the most sceptical countries within the EU. By 2013 this showed that less than 20% of UK citizens ‘trusted’ the EU or ‘thought it was going in the right direction.’

In my experience the British people are a pretty reasonable lot and take quite a bit to be provoked, but they also have a keen sense of fair play.  The cumulative effect of being told (not asked) to cede powers again and again had not only led to the growth of a new national political party but had also made the British public generally sceptical about “Brussels”. It was against this background that the historic 2016 referendum took place.

I recall in the midst of all the arguments over Lisbon having lunch with two senior diplomats from two large European countries – who seemed very satisfied with the Treaty’s progress (and indeed with themselves). In the end I protested:

“You may think you’re being very clever with avoiding a referendum but in the long run this won’t benefit you. All this will do is stir up a further sense of frustration and resentment in this country towards the EU.”

Just eight years later we voted to leave.

The great irony in all this is that those who were most passionate about “The European Project” – for whom it is almost an article of religious faith – fought so hard to deny the European public a say in their grand design that in the end it backfired on them, thanks to 17.4 million Brits.