The leaders of 27 member states of the European Union met this month in Lisbon, Portugal, to sign a new constitutional treaty that will, they hope, replace the previous draft that was rejected in 2005. With his typical penchant for hyperbole, European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso declared, "From this old continent, a new Europe is born." In fact, the planned ratification of the Lisbon Treaty smacks of old Europe - when the ruling elite got its way regardless of the wishes of the people over whom it ruled.
The Lisbon Treaty is a major new step toward the United States of Europe. It would be reasonable to expect, therefore, for the people of Europe to be given a say over its adoption in national referenda. So far, only the government of Ireland, where the EU is very popular, has decided to hold a referendum. Other governments will try to ram the Treaty through national parliaments. This is a blatant attempt to short-circuit the political process in countries where the EU's popularity is on the decline.
Clearly, the EU elite is trying to avoid the fate of the original EU constitution that was resoundingly defeated by the French and Dutch voters. Since unanimous approval among Europe's then 25 members was necessary for the constitution to come into effect, the elated opposition pronounced the document dead and declared victory. Abandoning the constitution was never seriously contemplated by the bureaucrats in Brussels, who declared a period of Europe-wide "reflection" and "consultation" - a meaningless drivel that turned out to be nothing but a prelude to a reintroduction of a "simplified" Lisbon Treaty two years later. Like a zombie, the EU constitution rose from the dead. Killing it for the second time will be much more difficult, however.
Having learned that the European publics cannot be trusted to share and to appreciate their political masters' vision for Europe, the European politicians have decided to subject the Lisbon Treaty to parliamentary approval only. Their gamble is that no parliament will dare to strike the treaty down thus earning the ire of the rest of the EU. They are probably right.
Some national constitutions, including the Danish one, require that referenda be held before further national sovereignty can be ceded to the EU. That is why Jens-Peter Bonde, a Danish member of the European parliament has threatened to challenge the legality of the likely parliamentary vote in the Danish constitutional court. Bonde seems to be on firm ground. The Danish government, after all, held a referendum in 1986 over the Single European Act and again in 1992 over the Maastricht Treaty. In the latter case, the "Yes" campaign lost and the government was forced to re-negotiate the terms of the Maastricht Treaty on terms that more closely reflected the wishes of the Danish electorate.
This time around, the Danish government claims that no referendum is needed, because no new powers will be transferred to Brussels. Yet that assessment is in direct conflict what everyone else seems to believe. If the constitutional treaty is adopted, Britain's Daily Telegraph estimates, United Kingdom will lose sovereign decision-making in 40 areas of policy, including energy, tourism, transport, and migration. Even the generally pro-European Labor government does not deny that it will lose the power of veto in a number of important areas.
Whether the courts will step in and overrule national parliaments remains an open question, of course. The original constitution was challenged in Germany and Slovakia, for example, but in both countries the courts failed to reach a judgment before the Dutch and French referenda took place. Were they contemplating the merits of the cases before them or kicking the problem into the long grass, hoping that it would go away?
From the start, the Europeans leaders were very clear about the need to "camouflage" the far-reaching effects of the constitutional treaty from the European peoples. Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French president who presided over the drafting of the original document, for example, said that "Public opinion will be led to accept, without realizing it, provisions that nobody dared to present directly." If that happens, the EU will lose whatever moral right it retains to lecture other countries about the virtues of democracy.