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"They will soon wring their hands"

Posted by Helen Saturday, August 14, 2004

It was Sir Robert Walpole, the first British Prime Minister who said about the general rejoicing because war against Spain had been declared in 1739, much against his will: "They now ring the bells but they will soon wring their hands."

Sir Robert had to deal with the London mob. What would he have said if he had had the modern media around? Even hardened media watchers on the subject of the EU, such as the editors of this blog, have been taken aback by the completely ridiculous rejoicing at the new appointments by Commission President Barroso. What a heavy-weight team, we are told on all sides. Really? Like who? They will probably get a lot heavier with all the lunching and dining but not intellectually.

A preponderance of liberals, free-marketeers and Atlanticists, we are also told on all sides. This is a team led by a President, who, one and all, think that a competitive economy is something that is established through rules and score cards set up under something called the Lisbon agenda. Their idea of liberalization is taking legislation away from national governments, concentrating it in Brussels and increasing it manifold, then throwing it back to the national legislatures demanding that it should all be put in place, appropriate or otherwise. Not precisely Adam Smith or Frederic Bastiat, is it?

Surely, it is clear that there is something wrong with the whole system, in which 25 people, completely unknown outside their own countries, large or small, can wield that kind of power over an artificially created Union. The Commission is not just the executive body of the EU, it is the sole source of legislation. Those 25 people, chosen all too often, on the principle of buggins' turn, will produce the legislation that cannot be thrown out or even amended by elected representatives. The fact that some of them might be Atlanticists (and what does that mean in practical terms, anyway?) is of very little significance.

Take one example: much as one rejoices to see Peter Mandelson’s career revived and the man himself ensconced in a place where his talents will be appreciated, Brussels, one rather wonders why he should be given the power to negotiate trade deals on behalf of 25 countries (even if he is able to do it with the Council of Ministers watching him like a hawk, as my colleague has written).

What does he know about Greece, Ireland, Finland or Estonia, to name four random countries on whose behalf he will be negotiating? What do they know of him? Did they elect him or want him? No, of course not. Besides, what will he be negotiating? The WTO deal was stitched up again and Tony Blair's friend will not be able to show his so-called free-trade credentials. (Incidentally, this is the first anyone has heard that he is a free-trader.)

Before anyone pulls me up on sarcasm, let me assure our readers that I am rather glad to see Mandy back. I like clever rogues and this particular rogue reminds one irresistibly of those charming, amoral chaps in nineteenth century French novels. How the descendant of the jovial but ponderous Herbert Morrison could have become a low level Rastignac or Georges Dandin is a mystery, but genes work in a funny way.

Then there is the question of the by-passed French and Germans. They do not think so and rightly. Verheugen's new job – one that he apparently did not really want on the flimsy ground that he has had no experience in economic matters – is one of the most important ones. Enterprise and industry are at the heart of the "project" and Germany, too. The twain have not been functioning well together for a while. We shall have to see whether Verheugen will do his best to spread the German disease even further. Should the Constitution ever be adopted, economic policy, let us remember will become Community competence.

And that's another thing. When asked why Mandelson, the British Commissioner, was not made a Vice-President as well as the French, German, Swedish and Estonian ones, Barroso explained that the fifth position was reserved for Solana, who will be Foreign Minister when the Constitution is adopted. Not if, but when. Even the Daily Telegraph let that one pass.

France has not done badly, either. Jacques Barrot's portfolio is not unimportant. Transport covers enormous aspects of inter-state organization and great possibilities for French subsidy of national treasures such as Air France.

Then there is Louis Michel with the Humanitarian Aid portfolio. As we have tried to make clear and will go on doing so, aid for the EU is part of its endless, dangerous and senseless struggle with the United States for influence. Louis Michel was the man who announced two days after the terrorist attack on the US, while other European politicians were still strutting round with NATO's importance, that the war against terror was not Europe’s war. Is M. Michel likely to look at the whole question of aid as anything but a weapon against the "nasty" Americans? Is he likely to stop using the unfortunate people of the Third World as pawns in his tireless struggle against the US?

Above all, the idea that a different selection of Eurocrats is going to solve the problem of sclerosis that Europe is now facing, is laughable. That supposes that somehow there can be a pan-European solution to difficult problems. There are no pan-European problems and, therefore, there can be no pan-European solutions. The task of this Commission, as of every previous one, will be simple: go on creating pan-European problems.

Still, not all is lost. The thought of Margot Wallström as the propagandist-in-chief for the European Union has made me feel for the first time that we have a very good chance of winning at least the important battle of the Constitution