Explaining the inexplicable

Tories, pop media and now Labour rebels want us to vote on a European Treaty that’s barely readable, largely incomprehensible and hardly consequential. Why?

UK Legislators have got the referendum bug again. Nothing wrong with that: asking your electorate to decide on really big questions has a long and noble history. This referendum, though, if it happens, will be a travesty of democracy. The problem is that no one in the electorate understands the treaty we’re asked to vote on (I blogged about this before).

The Lisbon Treaty is not wicked or dangerous. It won’t undermine our democracy and it won’t smear the States of old Europe into a single, continent-wide suburb of Brussels. It is a mess, though: it’s shabby, incoherent and compromised. The whole thing feels arbitrary and reeks of political contingency. People close to its drafting have even said that it’s been written in this awkward, occluded way deliberately because the lofty, Napoleonic terms of the constitution it replaces obviously stuck in the throats of quite a lot of ordinary Europeans.

And it’s on this compromised, difficult document that the Tories (and their new friends on the Labour back benches) want us to vote. They want us to absorb and understand the European Treaty which, in its amended form runs to over 330 pages. This, of course, is ridiculous. It’s worse: it’s anti-democratic. It says “screw democracy. We’re looking for some short-term electoral advantage.”

The Liberals, it pains me to say, have responded to this difficulty in a rather creative way. They say we shouldn’t be required to vote on the treaty itself but rather on the simpler (and obviously much larger) issue of whether we should stay in the EU at all.

So we have some options: the government’s approach, which is to rely on the mechanisms of representative democracy and shoo the thing through parliament in 12 days of debate; the Tories’ approach, which is to hold a meaningless referendum on a topic that’s essentially too complicated to understand or the Liberal approach, which is to sidestep the treaty and vote on Europe itself.

Or, it occurs to me, we could treat this is a genuine and quite exciting opportunity to produce some democratic engagement and explain the bloody treaty

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