Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Stop giggling

Andrew Duff, Lib-dim MEP and Europhile extraordinaire, is getting seriously rattled about the fate of the EU constitution, so seriously that he has penned a piece for the Financial Times imploring Tony Blair to step in and save the "project".

To do this, writes Duff, he will have to be a more convincing and a more convinced - European than Jacques Chirac. His "re-elected Labour government" (bloody cheek) should drop its hitherto, mealy-mouthed and defensive approach to the constitution and Blair should welcome the prospect of a European Union with an enhanced capacity to act effectively at home and abroad.

Blair should then declare support for the binding charter of fundamental rights. He should welcome the expansion of the budgetary and legislative powers of the European parliament, as well as the extension of democratic voting in the council.

He should then promise not to obstruct stronger integration among the eurozone members in social or fiscal policies. He should welcome the prospect of more harmonisation in key elements of justice policy. He should declare his support for an EU that stands on its own feet in world affairs, and commit the UK to building a common security and defence policy autonomously from Nato.

The constitution, he should say, raises the threshold of EU membership, making the conditions for Turkey's accession more stringent. And the UK should become a leader with France in boosting the common EU effort in overseas development.

Above all, implores Duff, Blair must pledge himself to continuing with the British referendum regardless of what France decides. He and his colleagues in the European Council have both a legal and political commitment to try to bring the constitution into force.

By the time the French vote at the end of May, eight other countries, including Germany, Italy and Spain, will already have ratified the constitution. The Dutch, Duff beleives, will probably say "yes" on 1 June. Others will proceed. A contingency plan already exists if only four-fifths of member states have completed ratification by 31 October next year.

Thus Duff continues, Blair must affirm in public what he privately knows perfectly well: that there is no possibility whatsoever of renegotiating the constitution. No coherent policy on renegotiation will emerge from France if the referendum is defeated. France will not suddenly become more important than it is today if it rejects Europe and shatters its partnership with Germany.

The only people who are certain to delight in a French no are British Europhobes and American neo-cons. The European Union is unthinkable without France. There is no plausible scenario in which France becomes a second class member of the union. Nor will a French "no" permit the emergence of a core group of integrationist member states, led by France and Germany. The likelihood is that if France rejects the constitution now it will have to accept it later under Mr Chirac's successor, after a lot of fuss and delay.

And so the great Europhile drones on: Britain is not so indispensable. A British "no" could well set Britain on the exit path. A French "no vote now makes a British "no" next year far more likely. Mr Blair's chances of getting the British to say "yes" will be much enhanced if he has transformed his European reputation by contributing to positive decisions and an optimistic mood elsewhere. He must start with France.

And that is the genuine Europhile speaking, a man so imbued with the project that he cannot even begin to look at the political realities. And one of those realities is that, whatever else you might think of Blair, he is not into political suicide.

If it wasn't for who he is, one would almost feel sorry for Duff. As it is, looking at his discomfiture, it is very hard to stop giggling.

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