treatySo now we have it: the centrepiece of EU reform is going to be just to delete the preambular reference to “an ever closer union”

And, to try to pretend that this is more significant than it is, don’t quote it in full, in case people notice the nuances: ” an ever closer union among the peoples (not the states) of Europe in which decisions are taken as closely as possible to the citizen in accordance with the principle of subsidiarity” — the principle that the EU should act in as decentralised a way as possible.

This  preambular exhortation has no direct legal effect, which is presumably why the then Conservative government accepted it — indeed defended it against suggested changes — when negotiating the Maastricht Treaty. Amending this now would require a treaty change that is unlikely to be agreed.

It is anyway not necessary:

We already have binding legal requirements, set in Articles 4 and 5 of the treaty itself rather than in the declaratory preamble, whereby the Union:

•    may act “only within the limits of the competences conferred upon it by the Member States in the Treaties” (principle of conferred powers)

•    even then, may act “only if and insofar as the objectives of the proposed action cannot be sufficiently achieved by the Member States” (principle of subsidiarity)

•    while  “the content and form of Union action shall not exceed what is necessary to achieve the objectives of the Treaties” (principle of proportionality)

For good measure, the treaties also specify that EU must “respect essential State functions”  including national security which “remains the sole responsibility of each Member State”.  These safeguards were secured by the Labour government when negotiating the Lisbon treaty.

But besides these legally binding provisions, the political procedures of the EU contain a vital safeguard against over-centralisation: the fact that no EU  legislation can be adopted without the approval of the EU Council — composed of national ministers from the Member States.  A “qualified majority” — a minimum of 74% of the votes in the Council (which are weighted so large countries like Britain have more votes) is needed to adopt anything. Nothing can be “imposed” by the Commission  – approval by a very large majority of the Member States themselves is needed.
Sensitive matters like tax or foreign policy even need unanimity – as does any proposal to amend the treaties to change the remit or powers of the EU – for which every single Member State must agree.

These legal and political safeguards demonstrate that the idea of a centralised Union replacing the Member States is a myth. While changing the preamble (say, to an “ever more harmonious union”) might be nice, it would have no real bearing on reality. A futile battle on the preamble is a red herring.