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Dead in the water

Posted by Richard Saturday, May 15, 2004

It is quite extraordinary that the media in general failed to pick up on the events in Poland yesterday. One is further dismayed by the lack-lustre coverage of EU affairs in today’s newspapers.

For sure, the sacking of Piers Morgan was an important event, in news terms, but if space to cover EU issues was limited, that was all the more reason why such coverage as was afforded should have been accurate and to the point.

The Times, however, excelled itself in producing a thoroughly inaccurate story, which completely missed the point. Homing in on the appointment of EU commissioners, it announced that "Britain will have to give up its right to appoint a European (sic) commissioner under a proposal aimed at reaching agreement on the draft European constitution".

Wrong, wrong, wrong. Anthony Browne, the Times Brussels correspondent, has been listening to the spin, instead of doing his homework and reading the Irish documents. Had he done so, he would have found – as revealed in this Blog yesterday – that the presidency has not made any proposals at all. It has merely listed the options "mooted" by some of the member states.

Why this distinction is so important only becomes apparent if one understands how the IGC process works – which clearly Mr Browne and his colleagues do not.

On Monday and Tuesday of this week (17/18 May), there is a meeting of foreign ministers from EU member states in Brussels, sitting as the General Affairs and External Relations Council, but also, quite separately (although at the same time – which always confuses the hacks) as an IGC.

In the general scheme of things, foreign ministers are second only in rank to heads of states and governments in the IGC process and, traditionally, in the working up to an EU treaty agreement, they do most of the donkey work.

Thus, when a final summit of heads of state and government is due (planned in this case for 17/18 June), at which a new treaty is scheduled to be agreed, the final meeting of foreign ministers immediately before that is the crucial event.

It is at this meeting that as many outstanding issues as possible are agreed, and the agenda is finalised for the final summit, comprising only those irreducible issues which cannot be agreed by the foreign ministers. The more items unresolved which go on to the final summit agenda, the less likely it is that agreement will be reached.

In this context, it will be remembered that, at the Nice summit, there were only four substantive agenda items. Yet the summit went into the fifth day and very nearly collapsed. Equally, the last summit in Brussels in December did collapse, under the weight of unresolved issues.

Looking ahead, therefore, we see a foreign ministers’ meeting scheduled – the last before the supposedly crucial summit – when far from being able to prepare a final agenda for the heads of states and governments, the ministers are not even able to agree their own agenda. And far from the numbers of issues outstanding being steadily reduced, what we are seeing from successive presidency documents, is an increasing number of contentious issues appearing.

This parlous state of affairs is illustrated by the press release issued today by the Irish presidency, trailing the Tuesday meeting. It announced that "Foreign Ministers will discuss the IGC and will seek to make progress on the outstanding issues on the basis of two working papers produced by the Presidency…". This does not sound like a meeting where definitive conclusions are going to be reached.

That brings us to Toby Helm’s piece in today’s Daily Telegraph. Known as a New Labour groupie, Helm proclaims that Blair is to "revive Thatcher's hard line on Europe", thus retailing a huge dose of spin that has been doled out by Downing Street.

In fact, this is more likely to be damage limitation. In anticipation of the collapse of the June summit – or its postponement - Blair is getting in first. Then, when the brown stuff hits the fan, he can claim the credit for something that was going to happen anyway. For, if the Poles, or even the Maltese, do not torpedo the summit, Blair – faced with mounting challenges to his “red lines” - would have to do so himself.

Hence the quote from an unnamed official, retailed by Helm: "We have a huge list of demands, but we have nothing to give them back in return. We can't and won't give any ground at all." The constitution is dead in the water. It’s just that the media have not woken up to that fact yet. However, watch for The Sunday Telegraph tomorrow.