In the run-up to the second reading of the European Union Bill on 9 February, Jack Straw has launched a series of "factsheets" on the FCO website purportedly dealing with "the mythology of the Eurosceptics which distort so much of the European Union."
The first "myth", published yesterday, is stated in terms that: "Britain would lose control over foreign policy under the constitutional treaty."
Before dealing with the response, one has to note that this is classic "straw man" territory – rather appropriately coming from Jack Straw’s department, the FCO. It is putting up a spurious point in order to knock it down.
In fact, no one at all knowledgeable about the EU treaties would even begin to argue that Britain would lose control of foreign policy under the constitution. The point is, as is often the case in the incremental development of policy which typifies the EU, that we would lose even more control than we have already – albeit that some residual powers would remain.
Even the "Vote No" campaigners, who are not the sharpest knives in the drawer only argue this point, that we would have "less control" under the constitution.
Thus, the FCO response to their own "myth" is hardly relevant to the debate, as we are in the main fully aware that, as the FCO states, "Common foreign policy isn't new – [it] was introduced in the Maastricht Treaty a decade ago."
"Ten years on", claims the FCO, "we also still have a thriving British foreign policy. Because we have a veto in foreign policy there is only an EU common policy where we all agree. But where we don't, there is no EU policy."
This latter set of claims is, however, somewhat tendentious, as the areas in which we have ceded to EU "common policies" is quite outstanding.
In December 1998, the Lord Pearson, in a written parliamentary question, asked how many areas of "common interest" were being dealt with by EU working groups and the answer was an astonishing 28. These were:
Administrative AffairsThe working groups are set up by the Presidency of the Council of the Union and report to the Council of the Union, meaning that the UK no longer has autonomy in the areas specified.
Conventional Arms Exports
Eastern Europe and Central Asia
Law of the Sea
Middle East Peace Process
Public International Law
Western Balkans Region
The reader will note that "armaments policy" is one of the common areas – which has particular relevance to the EU arms embargo on China – and that the whole of Africa is also an EU common area. This explains our lack-lustre performance on Zimbabwe, to say nothing of Sudan – as we have given over our policy-making in Africa to "joint action" by the EU.
The FCO, needless to say, does not state this, but claims in its "myth rebuttal" that that "has meant that we have the combined foreign policy strength of 25 Member States."
"Through the EU", it adds, "we're closely involved with the US, UN and Russia in the tackling the Middle East Peace Process. The European initiative on Iran led by Britain, France and Germany has carried much more weight than any one of us could have carried alone."
Interestingly, the FCO is still relying on Iran as an example of how well the EU’s foreign policy performs – despite the negotiations with Iran running into the sand – while not in any way mentioning Iraq - where our involvement with the US is closest.
Now, the constitution adds to the general powers of the EU, not least by appointing a "foreign minister", but the difficulty for the likes of the "Vote No" campaign - which supports our continued membership of the EU - is that so much has already been given away that the "extras" are relatively modest by comparison. This is also a problem for the Conservatives who, of course, gave those powers away at Maastricht.
And therein lies the central myth – that everything before the constitution is somehow acceptable yet only that which the constitution is objectionable. This is an issue that the "no" campaign is going to have to address before too long, or it is going to hamper the debate and confuse an already obscure message.