The British media could not resist the pun. “Blair does an EU-turn” screamed the headlines. It brought back memories of Margaret Thatcher (sometime supposed mentor of Blair) saying to her opponents “You turn if you want to. The lady is not for turning.” That, of course, was linked to a half-forgotten play of the forties, “The lady is not for burning”. Such are the links in political memory.
What is Blair doing? For months he insisted that a referendum was out of the question. It is not, we were told, democratic or part of the British political tradition (except when it appeared to be convenient to the New Labour project). The main problem with a referendum is that, faced with one, relatively simple question, the people may not vote as expected and, recently, referendums to do with the “European project” have not gone well from the integrationist elite’s point of view.
Blair’s distaste for the idea was clear when he made the statement in Parliament. Much to everyone’s amusement he could not bring himself to use the word referendum but described it in every possible other way. In theory, at least, he could still turn round and explain that this was not what he meant by “consulting the people”. Unfortunately, the days when he appeared to be able to walk on water are long gone.
What made him give in? There were rumours of cabinet rebellion, ministers insisting that Britain must have a referendum. The fact that those rumours and Blair’s proposed statement were leaked to the media may well have tipped his hand – the biter bit, given the way he and his staff have manipulated the media in the past. But, in fact, Blair had been signalling that “EU-turn” for some weeks. There was even speculation that he might outflank his opponents by having an in-or-out referendum on the EU. The likelihood is that the electoral commission will not let him do that, but, undoubtedly, that will be the thrust of the “yes” campaign on the constitution.
It is unlikely to have been popular opinion that influenced Blair. While he wants to be liked and admired, he has never seen giving in to popular opinion as part of that, calculating correctly that no popular opinion is going to last for very long. If he can appear to be sensitive, thoughtful but decisive (whether he is any of those things or not) he can ride any storm. Or so it seemed for a long time. But his luck changed some time ago and he may be running out of political options.
It is certainly true that the proposed EU constitution has raised more interest than European matters do normally. The media, even the BBC, have woken up to the fact that something important and potentially very nasty is about to hit this country. People are paying attention. It is also true that the Blair government has become extremely unpopular. It is perceived as incompetent with a strong dash of sleaze in it – the fatal perception that destroyed Major and the Conservative Party in 1997.
This June there will be elections for the European Parliament and some local ones. While the turn-out is expected to sink to an unprecedented low in both, Labour is unlikely to do well in either. In this Britain will conform to the pattern clearly visible throughout western Europe: governments are unpopular, the electorate is frustrated and the political leaders’ credibility is practically non-existent. The likelihood is that the June Summit, which is supposed to agree the constitution will be attended by political leaders, most of whom had been badly wounded in the European Parliamentary elections just a week or so previously. This is a particular problem for Blair, who is not especially popular with many of his colleagues, in that he has always been able to point to his enormous majority in the House of Commons in Parliament. The fact that this majority is not based on a true electoral popularity is irrelevant – nobody else comes anywhere near him. Serious losses in the European elections will hit him hard.
Then there is the next general election. Best guess is that it will be in the spring of 2005 and none of the domestic problems - high taxation; bloated and inefficient public sector; appalling health, education, transport; disintegrating law and order; immigration that the government has no control over; a perception that the government and its minions could not tell the truth even if they tried; - will either disappear or improve. The last thing Blair needs on top of that is the festering problem of an EU constitution, which, his opponents will point out, he is trying to force on the British people without even asking their opinion. Traditionally, the Labour Party has tried to hide the whole European issue during political campaigns.
The one time, it did come to the fore was in 1983 as part of Michael Foot’s disastrous Labour manifesto (known as the longest suicide note in history) and many still remember the shattering defeat of that year. It was not their threat to withdraw from the EEC that did it but Blair and his cohorts have tried to get away from the whole package. In 1997, after 18 years in opposition, the Labour Party had convinced itself that “Europe” was a peculiarly Conservative problem. They, in particular, their supposedly glamorous leader, will be able to deal with it. Alas, the doomsayers were proved right. Blair’s government has not dealt with the problem any better than its predecessors. So the time has come to sweep it under the carpet again. And what better way of doing it than by promising a referendum. By this Blair hopes to ensure that he will not have to fight a general election campaign on the European issue.
The trouble is that it is hard to see what exactly he will be able to fight the campaign on. He has no strong points left. He has failed to reform the public services and cannot really ask for another term to do what he has not managed to do in the last two. (Though almost certainly he will.) The fight against terrorism has been compromised by the lies the government told quite unnecessarily and, even more so, by its refusal to fight terrorism nearer home. A Prime Minister who rushes off from the memorial service to the victims of the Madrid bombing to shake hands with the man who is responsible for the Lockerbie bombing and the death of hundreds in Northern Ireland will not be seen as a knight in shining armour.
There is some indication that he is going to turn the vote for an EU constitution into a moral issue but it is unlikely to work. The moral argument for the EU is tarnished and to say that we owe this to the East European countries begs several questions. The Nice Treaty was allegedly essential for enlargement; why should the constitution be that as well? Those who understand enlargement are unlikely to agree that what the post-Communist countries need is a rigid, detailed, 300-odd pages long constitution; those who do not are either not interested or, worse, fear a huge influx of migrants.
However, there is one thing Blair can do and that is wrongfoot the other side. The earliest the constitution can be agreed on is at the June Summit in Dublin and even that is not a done deal. It is being argued that by calling a referendum Blair has strengthened his hand in negotiating concessions with his partners. The problem is that it is not clear what those concessions are likely to be. The famous “red lines” have long been forgotten by everyone and fighting a referendum on detailed analysis of the constitution would not be particularly astute if the “no” campaign can present a coherent bigger picture. Poland and Spain, the two countries that have made difficulties in December have half-indicated that they are willing to take a softer line but the Spanish Foreign Minister has said that Spain will emerge from these negoatiations with a better deal than the one they secured in Nice. That means some very hard bargaining. (It is worth noting that, no matter what various Spanish governments may say about the global situation, their behaviour within the EU does not change. They will support integration but hold up all negotiations to get themselves the best deal possible. How long other member states will allow this, remains to be seen.)
If all the reefs are avoided successfully and the constitution is agreed on in June, it has to be negotiated through Parliament, which will not be easy. But there will be no referendum until that process is completed. If Blair is very lucky, one of the other countries will vote the constitution out during that time and he may be able to abandon the idea with a relieved sigh. But if he is not let off the hook, the parliamentary process will take the best part of next year and run into the pre-election fever. If it is completed in time, the referendum will have to be called after the election, whose results, at present, cannot be forecast. But, at least, Blair can hope to remove Europe from the electoral campaign. In fact, given the growing fear of European integration, he is not likely to succeed in that. The Conservatives, who are opposing the constitution will, presumably, make as much political hay as possible.
Blair’s greatest strength is the big split in the “no” campaign between those who merely oppose whatever happens to be on the agenda – euro, constitution, change in the voting arrangements – but refuse to look at the whole vast question of Britain’s membership and, indeed, the EU’s existence, and those who think that the problem is insoluble, the system unreformable and the sooner we abandon it and start again, the better. At times of crisis, such as a referendum, the two sides come together but the tensions remain, and, undoubtedly, the “yes” side and the government will work hard to exacerbate them.
The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has already said that a no vote will not mean a resignation issue for the Prime Minister. Strictly speaking that is true: other no votes in referendums on EU related subjects have not usually resulted in resignations. In Blair’s case there will be a difference because of his deeply personal style of leadership. Every issue becomes a moral one; every issue is a vote of confidence in him. Whether he can survive a rejection of something that is so crucial to his political world view remains to be seen. Then again, he might not want to. There have been many rumours about an imminent resignation. The assumption is that Gordon Brown will be the successor and, given certain problems between those two, it is not impossible that Blair may wish to hand over a poisoned chalice. In fact, the Labour Party will have to elect a leader and that is not a foregone conclusion at all.
For the “yes” side the referendum will not be crucial but very important. If they lose, the constitution will die, though probably only temporarily. That may, in fact happen, if one of the other countries votes no. This will not destroy the European project and the push for integration will carry on as it has done for decades: through a slow, accumulative process. On the other hand, much of the project depends on a lack of opposition to it, if not necessarily active support. In the last ten years or so there has been a gradually growing perception that the EU is not popular with the people in Europe, who have gone along with it without realizing its implications and not really seeing any alternative. The infamous democratic deficit will become even greater with a no vote in any member state, and particularly in Britain. There is something to the theory that European integration has to keep moving to stay upright: every time it wobbles, its ability to reach the final destination becomes more doubtful.
The “no” side cannot afford to lose the referendum but even if it wins, it will have gained little. We shall all be exactly where we are now. It was summed up best by one eurosceptic writer, who said that if we lose the referendum we have lost the war, if we win, we have won a battle. The fight against the euro was described as the sceptics’ Maginot line – the EU’s tanks of greater integration and more regulation simply rolled round the end of it. The concentration on the constitution will have the same effect and there will be a great need not to lose sight of the bigger picture. Perhaps the best thing some eurosceptics can do is to emulate Stalin in 1943 at the meeting of the Big Three in Teheran. While Churchill and Roosevelt concentrated on the war, Stalin started to produce plans for the post-war division of Europe. The “no” side, to be truly effective, will have to start producing workable plans for the post-EU Europe.
Either way, another prop has been knocked out from under the post-1945 settlement. And, either way, European politics is likely to be interesting in the next few years.