Thursday, February 10, 2005

The debate in the media

With the European Union Bill second reading debate transcript running to over a hundred pages of A4 and more than 47,000 words - the length of a short novel - the problem of delivering a coherent report of the proceedings is self-evident, especially in the frenetic time-scale to which the media have to work.

Not that The Times even bothered. Once known as the "paper of record", the print copy did not even refer to the debate. Future historians will have to look elsewhere for their information.

Inevitably – how could it be otherwise? – of the newspapers which did bother to report the event, albeit overshadowed by other events of more immediate journalistic interest, the different sympathies and political slants were very much to the fore.

The Guardian for instance, chooses: "Assurance by Straw on EU constitution", its strap reading: "Treaty will mean no further integration for decades, MPs told".

According to Patrick Wintour, the chief political correspondent, "Straw hardened his assurance that no further EU integration would be contemplated for decades if the British people backed the proposed new EU constitution", the egregious hack stating that Straw had told the Commons the constitution signalled "thus far and no further" by clearly setting out the limits of EU powers.

However, although Wintour puts the "thus far…" in parenthesis, suggesting a direct quote from Straw to the House, the quote actually came from Graham Brady, Tory shadow Europe minister, who was in turn quoting from Straw's interview on the Today programme .

Brady cited Straw who, on the programme, claimed that the constitution "literally limits the powers of the European Union", adding: "What this does is say 'this far and no further'".

Said Brady to the House, "That directly contradicts the Prime Minister, who claimed in Cardiff on 28 November 2002 that: we must end the nonsense of 'this far and no further'." Brady added: "It also contradicts the Minister for Europe, who said at Durham university in November that 'this treaty won't be the last word'."

Selective reporting on the part of the Guardian, but what do you expect?

Only secondarily does the paper then take the theme offered by Straw that if Britain rejected the treaty "we are in unknown territory, weak and isolated in Europe." It cites Straw saying: "We would have to go cap in hand to Brussels to ask our partners to start all over again - reopening negotiations in which we had secured such a good result. If we got any deal at all, it would be a worse not a better one, negotiated from a position of weakness, not of strength".

Since Britain would be in a position of strength, effectively being able to hold the "colleagues" to ransom, one can actually imagine the other EU leaders beating a path to Downing Street in order to rescue their project, so Straw's imagery must be taken with a pinch of salt.

Anyway, this was very much the line taken by The Independent, which chose "Crisis for Britain if it votes against the EU constitution", as its headline. The paper's political editor cites Straw declaring that Britain would be plunged into a "crisis" and become a semi-detached member of the European Union if it rejected the EU constitution.

Straw had "made [it] clear" that the government would try to persuade a sceptical public to endorse the treaty by warning them of the severe consequences of a "no" vote. He said rejecting the treaty would be a "risk" and leave the country in "unknown territory".

This identifies one of the strategies being adopted by Straw, who is fighting the "status quo" effect, which tends to dominate referendums, whereby people prefer to vote conservatively, rejecting anything new. Straw is trying to position the "yes" decision as the safe option.

The Independent also retails Straw’s claim that Tory opposition is using the referendum as a "Trojan horse" to renegotiate existing EU treaties as well as the new one implementing the constitution. He is cited as saying that said their goal was "pure fantasy" and "literally undeliverable" as it would require the agreement of all 24 other member states.

"I am confident this patriotic case and patriotic argument for Britain in Europe will win against the narrow pessimistic isolationism of the anti-Europeans," he says.

Ancram gets the statutory rejoinder, reported as saying that the Tories would oppose the Bill because they believed the treaty and the constitution were separate issues that should be dealt with by separate legislation. He is right, not least because of the issues raised by my colleague, which have such profound significance that they should be explored fully by MPs.

The Independent also gives pride of place to Kenneth Clarke and his complaints about the referendum (which we will review separately) and then gives voice to the token Labour Eurosceptic, Ian Davidson, MP for Glasgow Pollok, saying:

Signing up to this constitution means handing 63 new powers to the EU and Labour voters should say "no". The constitution would mean Thatcherite economics, a militarised EU and the centralisation of power. There should be no new powers to Brussels until the EU is reformed.
The Sun picks up on the Brady line (without identifying the author) using it to back a headline: "Straw v Blair in EU clash".

The result, according to The Sun, is that "Blair's EU Constitution dream was in chaos last night after he was flatly contradicted by his Foreign Secretary". This is something of an exaggeration, but good theatre. However, it gives the paper a leader, allowing it to call the government a "Push-Me-Pull-You" after the fictional animal in Dr Dolittle, which faced both ways at once.

Returning to the more serious media, The Telegraph offers a brief news piece, which does not seem to appear on the website, followed by a leader which takes on "Scaremongering Straw". It suggests that listeners to yesterday morning's Today programme may be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the Foreign Secretary has not actually read the 448 articles of the proposed European Constitution.

While Straw argues that the document represents a triumph for Britain's national interests, The Telegraph goes into detail on the constitution, pointing out that little details like Article 1 (6), which states that "This constitution shall have primacy over the laws of the member states"

With this and other examples, it asks: "Does he think that these words are simply meaningless - a random collection of hieroglyphs, assembled in no particular order, signifying nothing? Isn't it far more likely that they mean exactly what they say: that the constitution will allow the eurocracy in Brussels to overrule the wishes of the people of Britain whenever it chooses?"

The Scottish press makes an interesting contrast as well, with the Scotsman choosing: "EU referendum defeat 'staring Labour in the face'", stating that the government is facing a potentially ruinous defeat in the European Constitution referendum. This is a warning by MPs, who have "shrugged off" threats that rejecting the treaty would leave Britain "weak and isolated".

The Europhile Herald, on the other hand, has it that: "Straw launches offensive on EU constitution", firing the first salvo in the forthcoming battle with a scathing attack on the Tories' "pessimistic isolationism".

It had "parliamentary heavyweights" like Kenneth Clarke, William Hague and Robin Cook, signalling the intensity of the forthcoming campaign, with barnstorming speeches defending their entrenched positions.

It concludes it piece with a quote from Kenneth Clarke, lambasting the government for giving in to calls for a referendum. Predicting that any campaign would be unsatisfactory, he said: "I think we will all infuriate the public as we debate this in ever more strident terms, because as is clear from this debate, there isn't even going to be agreement between the two sides of the argument about what the treaty actually does."

Dislike and disagree with Clark on virtually everything, as we do on this Blog, he may well have a point here.

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