Europe: the wolf is here
This is it: the moment that we have repeatedly been told would never come about. The EU is about to transform itself, de jure and de facto, into a single state. The European Convention, which has been meeting this past year under the chairmanship of the former French president Valiry Giscard d'Estaing, will issue its final text in June. That draft will be adopted by the EU's leaders next year, and a new polity will be born.
We realise that we are making a huge claim. Some readers may think we are being alarmist. If we are honest, Euro-sceptics have occasionally been a little too ready to decry each new Brussels initiative as a mortal blow to Britain's independence. Like the boy who cried "wolf!", they may have damaged their credibility. But the point of that story is that the wolf does eventually turn up, and that is the moment we have reached now.
If you have the time, read the draft yourself (it can be accessed at european-convention.eu.int). Look at the number of areas in which EU jurisdiction is specified: competition, trade, asylum and immigration, foreign affairs, industrial policy, agriculture, fisheries, energy, transport, regional government, consumer health, social and employment policy, justice and home affairs.
The list goes on and on. In fact, it is easier to make the point the other way around by asking how many Whitehall ministries would be left fully in control of their own affairs. The answer is one: the Department of Health.
If this is not a plan for a United States of Europe, it is difficult to think of what is. In fact, just in case we miss the point, M Giscard has helpfully suggested a new name for the entity: the United States of Europe. It may be, of course, that British ministers will succeed in blocking this name. They may also get their way over the removal of the word "federal" from Article 1. But, whatever name is used, there is no disguising the content.
Article 9 spells out the legal position with brutal clarity: "The Constitution, and law adopted by the Union Institutions in exercising competences conferred on it by the Constitution, shall have primacy over the law of the Member States." British Europhiles have been quick to point out that EU law has been supreme over our national statutes ever since 1973 - although we do not remember them being so quick to admit this at the time.
None the less, there is a world of difference between a treaty and a constitution. The former binds its states as signatories; the latter creates a new legal order, which does not depend on the member states to bestow powers upon it. On the day the proposed constitution comes into force, all previous EU treaties will be dissolved.
Legally speaking, we will then be a constituent province of a new state, without even the right of automatic secession. No wonder M Giscard and his fellow draftsmen like to compare their work with that of the Philadelphia Convention of 1787: they, too, are acting as midwives at the birth of a nation.
The subordinate status of the member states is underlined in virtually every clause of the text. The Commission will get new powers, and its leader will become a kind of President of Europe. There will be an EU "Minister for Foreign Affairs", and a unified diplomatic service. The Union will acquire legal personality, enabling it to take over from its member states on the UN and other international organisations.
The Charter of Fundamental Rights will be given binding force, making huge swathes of national life subject to the whims of European judges. An embryonic criminal code will be drawn up, with a European Public Prosecutor and a federal police force, Europol. There will be a mechanism for punishing recalcitrant states by removing their voting rights.
How often have we been assured by the Pattens and Kennedys and Blairs that "No one wants a European superstate"? This "No one" is plainly a pretty influential fellow in Brussels. Remember how "No one" wanted tax harmonisation, the social chapter, a European army? It seems that what "No one" wants today becomes law tomorrow.
It would be easier to respect Tony Blair if he were prepared to make his case from first principles - if he were prepared to say "I believe that Britain would be more prosperous if we had pan-European taxation", or "Britain would be safer if we were defended by EU armed forces" or "Britain would be freer if our rights were protected by European judges". We might disagree with him, but at least we could have an honest argument. What is dishonest and discreditable is to pursue this agenda while all the time denying it.
Whenever Mr Blair plans a new transfer of powers to Brussels, he falls back on a well-rehearsed three-stage plan. Stage one is denial: "No one is even talking about a European constitution (or a European police force, or whatever). It only goes to show how paranoid these sceptics are that they could suggest such a thing."
Stage two is bravado: "All right, they're talking about it, but don't worry: we have a veto and we're prepared to use it." Stage three is resignation: "It's no use complaining now: the whole thing has been settled."
Labour has been helped in its strategy by the invisibility of the Conservative foreign affairs team. Indeed, the one Tory MP on the Convention, David Heathcoat-Amory, has been doing the work of his front bench for them. In particular, he has grasped that the Convention could be turned into an opportunity, both for Britain and for the Tories.
For, if this country were to refuse to ratify, it would be offered a form of associate membership of the new bloc. Such a dispensation - being part of a single market, but not a political union - is what most British voters have wanted all along. If the Tories could offer it to them, they would reap a commensurate reward. What a pity if they were to leave it too late.