Sunday, February 13, 2005

A tidying-up exercise

I do not normally have much time for Rod Liddle – former editor of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme - but this week in this Sunday Times column he has done us a useful service with a piece entitled: "Mood music for drifting into a Eurostate".

"Confused about the breadth and scope of the proposed constitution for the European Union?", he asks. "Worried about how you should vote in the referendum next year?"

In a thoroughly ironic vein, he then suggests that Peter Hain could help: Here's what the leader of the House of Commons said about it within the space of a few months in late spring 2003:

This is not a major change... there is no need for a referendum. (On PM, the BBC Radio 4 programme.)

I am not saying it has got no substantial constitutional significance, of course it will have. (In the House of Commons.)

Our task is nothing less than the creation of a new constitutional order for a new, united Europe. (In the Financial Times.)
There, I hope that’s cleared things up, writes Liddle.

Referring to Hain's claims that the constitution is nothing more than a "tidying-up exercise" - a description endorsed by Straw – Liddle notes that there are different levels of "tidying-up exercise". There is the sort you undertake after you have had a few friends around and your wife's due back within the hour. "Then there's the sort of 'tidying-up exercise' that happened to Hong Kong in 1997 or the Sudetenland in 1938."

This is not sufficient, Liddle believes to support an outright accusation that Hain and Straw are lying through their teeth. They could be employing the subtle literary device of "litotes".

Litotes, the dictionary tells us is a form of understatement in which an affirmative is expressed by the negative of the contrary (as in "not a bad singer"). This form is current in Yorkshire, where the highest form of praise is the expression "not bad", but one suspects that Liddle is either being charitable or too clever by half by attributing "litotism" – if that is a word - to the Hain-Straw duo (perhaps it should be a Straw-Hain?).

Anyhow, Liddle continues his theme, recalling that Keith Vaz, erstwhile minister for Europe had once described the EU charter of fundamental rights as having “about as much legal status as The Beano” and, while in a mood for recollection, he recounts a little incident that happened four years ago.

This, he asserts, shows you quite a lot about the government's behaviour over the EU constitution, its general trustworthiness and its attitude to people or institutions that question its intentions. Back in November 2000, he writes:

I was editor of the Today programme. One morning we ran an investigation into a document commissioned by the European commission through the University of Florence with the help of Professor Alan Dashwood, a Cambridge don. It was, we said on the programme, part of a potential blueprint for an EU constitution. Dashwood agreed.

At that time the government was adamant it would not sign up to anything called a constitution. As far as ceding power to Brussels was concerned its line was "this far and no further". A constitution implied that more power would be ceded, so such a thing could not be on the agenda, we were told.

The reporter who carried out the investigation was Andrew Gilligan. As soon as his report was transmitted, all hell broke loose. The BBC received three furious complaints, almost identical in tone and content, from John Williams, the head of press at the Foreign Office, a pencil-necked EU bureaucrat called Jonathan Faull and a certain Alastair Campbell.

This document was old news, they screamed — and in any case did not suggest preparations were afoot for an EU constitution. At the morning lobby briefing, on 29 November, Andrew Gilligan was attacked by Godric Smith, one of Campbell's 10 Downing Street scullions. "Gullible Gilligan," he told the lobby hacks, "falling for the Eurosceptic agenda."

The letters of complaint to the BBC continued into 2001 until the broadcaster, with commendable resolve, finally told them to piss off for good and all. The document was nothing more than a tidying-up exercise, the public was assured. It just ties together documents and treaties, loose ends, things like that.
"Of course," writes Liddle, "we now know that a constitution was planned. It did indeed involve a considerable loss of sovereignty and the document we had revealed formed part of the blueprint, just as Gilligan had alleged."

This account is extremely helpful. The docment to which he refers was the second of two reports, the first having been delivered to the commission in May 2000. It was entitled "A basic treaty of the European Union" and was discussed in a commission document in July 2000. It was then published in the November. Many of the changes suggested by this Florence University report were actually incorporated into the final draft of the constitution. But I wonder if Liddle realises just quite how long the constitution had been planned? Like, since 1942?

Four years down the line, Liddle continues, when Jack Straw talks about the proposed EU constitution he assures us it stands for "this far and no further". Despite the fact that it involves the creation of an EU foreign minister, insists EU law is supreme over national law and, in many cases, ends the single country veto.

But then, as we have seen, when new Labour talks about the EU it always tells the public "this far and no further". And then, quietly, it goes further and further.

This, I believe, is a highly significant comment, not least because it picks up on my text delivered on the BBC Today programme last week when I charged:

This constitutional treaty is part of an ongoing process Рit is just one more step in a project aimed at creating a government of Europe, devised by the political élites, without the informed assent of their peoples.
The more I think about this, and the reaction to it, the more I believe that this is the Achilles heel of the Europhile argument. As evidenced by the Will Hutton piece in The Observer today, the Europhiles (or one faction of them) are desperate to play down the significance of the EU constitution, hence Hutton’s comment:

Despite the rabid opposition, it [the constitution] essentially codifies existing procedures, entrenches the power of the UK, France and Germany and tries to bring about more efficient decision-making.
Liddle has it right when he asks the question: “How are we to lay our cynicism aside when faced with government ministers whose answers shift with the wind?”, offering the response: "It's a terribly unfashionable thing to say, but the old Claude Cockburn maxim: 'why is this bastard lying to me?' still seems to carry a bit of force." He concludes:

Call me cynical and disaffected if you like, but I have the suspicion that were you to ask Peter Hain if he thought Camilla Parker Bowles should become Queen of England following her marriage to Prince Charles, his answers would be as follows, dependent upon who was asking the question: a) yes. b) no. c) It is ridiculous to suggest there will be any such thing as a "marriage". It is simply a tidying-up exercise.
I think we can do a deal here. If Hain will admit the forthcoming royal marriage is a "tidying up exercise", we will accept that description for the EU constitution.

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