Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Headed for the guard’s van?

Sources: Financial Times, The Independent and AFP

Faced with the increasingly likely prospect of a new constitution being blocked, France and Germany are returning to the long-standing idea of a multi-speed Europe. According to the Financial Times, they want to bypass British opposition and allow "pioneer groups" to push ahead with closer integration unencumbered by national vetoes.

The plan is to create a so-called avant garde which develop common policies in areas which Britain will not accept – such as in tax, social security and judicial co-operation.

It appears that France, Germany and Spain, supported by a number of smaller countries, want to be able co-ordinate policy on the basis of a qualified majority vote. France and Germany have already announced plans to co-ordinate company taxation, but such “enhanced co-operation” under existing treaty provisions has to be conducted by unanimity.

Straw is said to be opposed any move to extend QMV "through the backdoor" on these issues. Yesterday evening, he told the annual dinner of the CBI that "Britain must stay at the heart of the EU's decision-making process".

Sticking to his government’s standard line, he reaffirmed that he wanted to pursue economic reforms in the EU, telling industrialists that, "If we retreat to the margins, we will not achieve the right results for Britain". Publicly, at least, he is still labouring under the impression that we can "put ourselves at the centre of decision-making and build winning alliances".

Despite this, if France and Germany do manage to develop what has also been called the "vanguard", Britain may end up in the guard’s van. However, if you are on board a train which is charging ahead at full speed to disaster, that is perhaps the best place to be.

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