Monday, May 03, 2004

The Swiss option

The Daily Telegraph today, rightly observes that there are worse fates than being like Switzerland, a fate threatened by Pascal Lamy, European Trade Commissioner, if we vote “no” to the constitution.

It also correctly deduces that Mr Lamy evidently intended his analysis as a threat, suspecting that many British voters would happily settle for Swiss status: membership, that is, of a European free market, but not of common political structures.

However, the situation is not that straightforward. It is true that, if the British refuse to ratify the treaty, the treaty falls, and with it the European constitution. The problem is that that self-same treaty repeals the existing treaties. Thus, if the constitutional treaty does not take effect, we and all the other 24 member states are still bound by the existing treaties.

If, as the Telegraph suggests, the outcome is that the more federally minded states then push ahead on their own – forming an inner “core” - untold complications arise. Twenty-five states would be bound by existing treaties, while a lesser number would be bound by another treaty, the provisions of which would almost certainly conflict with the previous treaties.

Imagine, for instance, one area of competence which under the exiting provisions, is dealt with under unanimity but, in the new treaty is dealt with by QMV. A proposal might be agreed by the core countries and then be rejected by the whole 25, voting under QMV. Eventually, the system would become so unworkable that a new arrangement would have to be negotiated.

Thus, it is not the constitution, per se, that would cause Britain to break off, but what the other member states might do afterwards. Then, of course, Britain would have the whip hand because it would be in the position of agreeing to accommodate the others, with a veto on whether those arrangements came into force- altogether a very happy position.

Nevertheless, the “yes” campaign will continue in its attempts to paint a picture of “poor little Britain” being isolated on the fringes of Europe, evoking the scary prospect of her falling behind in prosperity and influence.

This is why the story of the Faroes Islands is so important – as recounted in the Booker column this week click here to read the report. When it comes to being on the fringes, you could not get more isolated – a tiny group of islands marooned in the North Atlantic, on the edge of the Arctic Circle. And as for small, its population of 50,000 is smaller than the average British Parliamentary constituency.

Yet, outside the Common Fisheries policy, the Faroes have managed to increase their fish catch by 38 percent, in a period when the British catch dropped 25 percent. Faroese fishermen gross £106,000 per annum, compared with £30,000 for their British counterparts, and the fish stocks are healthy and increasing.

This is the positive example which demonstrates that, far from being a disaster, taking our place on the fringes of “Europe” could be a blessing. It demonstrates that we need not worry about being in the vanguard of European integration. If we end up in the guard’s van, this is not entirely an uncomfortable place to be, even more so when, traditionally, that is where the emergency brake is situated.

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