Wednesday, February 09, 2005

A flurry of activity

The imminent second reading of the European Union Bill is certainly triggering a flurry of activity on the EU constitution front. Not least, Jack Straw has dragged himself from the virtual world of the FCO website, to "go on the offensive" in a rare Labour press conference on Europe.

His theme, though, was to attack the Conservatives for "offering a false prospectus" on the EU, by suggesting they could renegotiate terms of membership. Straw described Tory plans as "a fantasy and a deception".

Mr Straw claimed yesterday: "The Tories have gone step by step towards a policy that calls for a sweeping renegotiation of the terms of British membership of the EU. It is an impossible and unworkable policy, but one that would leave Britain isolated and weakened."

"Claiming that Britain can accept the bits of being an EU member it likes and withdraw from all the others, is.. a fantasy, a posture designed to appease hardline Euro-sceptics without causing excessive alarm to moderates."

On the other side of the coin, the Institute of Directors has published a poll of its members which shows that nearly half of the 1000 questioned – 49 percent – opposed the EU constitution against 29 percent who supported it, with 20 percent undecided.

However, in a finding that suggested that there was everything to play for, 43 percent of those polled indicated that they could be influenced by arguments from campaigners, while only 25 percent claimed to be even moderately informed about the constitution.

Meanwhile, Labour's Robin Cook, Conservative MP Kenneth Clarke and Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Sir Menzies Campbell have teamed up, emerging from the wood work to claim that it was in Britain's interests to ratify the controversial document.

Clarke applauded the fact that the debate about the EU constitution was getting under way," adding that the public will now be able to find out that "the treaty is a rule book for a group of nation states who have chosen to work together for the common good of their citizens and not the blueprint for a superstate".

Cook parroted the government line – first time for everything, given that he has opposed it consistently over Iraq – saying that the new constitution would allow Europe to function more effectively. "It will strengthen democracy and give more power to national parliaments. It will ensure that Europe is equipped to meet the challenges of the future and deliver jobs and growth," he said."

The Tories, through their foreign affairs spokesman Michael Ancram, chose to respond on points of detail, charging that Labour had been "against an EU constitution, but now they've signed up to it, they were against giving the EU control over asylum, but they've broken that pledge". He added: "They said an EU foreign minister would be 'unacceptable', but the constitution provides for one."

For the first time in a while, it seems, the campaign has actually stirred from its torpor, although it can hardly be said that the "debate" has started. Little heat, less light, and much posturing seems to have been the order of the day.

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