Thursday, February 03, 2005

Explanation – or propaganda?

With last week's publication of the European Union Bill, which sets up the process for ratification of the EU constitution and the arrangements for the referendum now comes the "explanatory notes", produced by the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

These are effectively a guide to MPs, explaining the detail of the Bill. They have been prepared, the introduction claims, "to assist the reader of the Bill and to help inform debate on it."

The use of the word "inform", however, implies a neutral summary of the provisions, yet this is very far from the case. Using taxpayer's money to address our own legislature, the FCO simply could not resist the opportunity of spreading its own propaganda.

This is most evident in a summary of the "background" to the Bill, where it summarises the EU constitution in a way that can best be described as "heavily slanted" – not only because of what it does say, but for what it does not.

Offering 12 "bullet points" on the "key changes" made by the constitution to the existing treaties, the first is "a clearer definition of the powers of the European Union".

Apparently uncontentious, this is actually one of the changes cited as an advantage of the constitution, and a reason for approving it – so you can see immediately where the FCO is coming from.

But it is, in fact, a non-issue. Apart from putting all the provisions of the treaties in once cover, there is no more or less clarity in this treaty than in the others. The definitions (and limits) of power were always clearly set out in previous treaties – for those who could understand the jargon - and they are no more or less so in the constitution.

The key factor though is why the FCO should wish its readers to consider this an advantage – which it clearly them to. Imagine a vicious, totalitarian government that had its powers codified, but spread throughout a series of documents. Would setting out all its powers in one document make it any less vicious or totalitarian? So where is the advantage of defining powers more clearly, if nothing fundamental changes?

The next "bullet point" notes that the constitution includes "a provision stating that the EU may only act within the limits of the powers conferred on it by the treaty". But that has always been the case – the European Union is a treaty structure and owes everything to the provisions of the treaties. Nothing has changed.

However, what the document does not say is that some of the powers conferred are pretty vague – and intentionally so – and that where a dispute arises as to where exactly the power should lie, this is decided not by the member states but by the EU’s own European court of Justice.

Crucially, though, the document does not say that the constitution increases substantially the powers of the European Union, not least by abolishing 63 specific national vetoes and replacing them with qualified majority voting. All we get is: "extension of qualified majority voting in the Council and co-decision in the European Parliament".

Other delights include description of a provision "enabling a member state to withdraw from the European Union" without any recognition that, as sovereign states, members can leave any time they want – or their parliaments require. They do not need a constitution to tell them they can.

Then there is "greater involvement of national parliaments in EU decision-making". Note the word: "involvement". Involvement, of course, is not power. As the pig told the hen, when they were discussing the traditional English egg and bacon breakfast, "you’re involved – I'm committed".

Anyhow, the document is a useful accompaniment to the Bill, even if it is only to see how the government is spinning its case. But, once again, this is not information – it is state-funded propaganda.

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