Friday, April 15, 2005

The worst of all possible worlds

Even the BBC is beginning to notice. Robin Lustig on last night's BBC Radio 4 World Tonight ran a short piece on why "Europe" was not featuring in the general election campaign and, this morning the Today programme interviewed Bill Rammel, foreign office minister, and Graham Brady, shadow Europe minister, on the same theme.

Brady gave the game away, saying that he found that "Europe" was not the number one issue on the doorstep, particularly because of the referendum.

There is the rub. By transferring the debate to the referendum campaign, deliberately, the issue of "Europe" has been neutralised. Thus it was in the 1997 campaign – when the issue was the single currency – and to extent in the 2001 campaign, when the issue remained the euro. But now the focus is the constitution, and discussion can safely be deferred until the election is over, all because we have the promise of a referendum.

But what if we do not have a referendum? If the volatile French, or even the Dutch, vote against the constitution, there can be little dispute that it will be "dead in the water", for the time being at least. Blair – and with the current poll giving Labour a five point lead, one must assume it will be Blair - will have every justification for calling off an expensive and disruptive referendum, and putting the constitution on the back burner.

One can see it now. Following brief celebrations at the "victory" of the French, or the Dutch, or whatever, the British public, aided and abetted by the media and the political classes, will sink back into the torpor from which they have barely been disturbed, and "Europe" will be firmly off the agenda. With the constitution out of the way, the European Union will become once again a "non-issue".

But, as we are seeing from the comments of Elmar Brok and others, not least Jan Rokita, the Polish politician cited in our previous post, the "colleagues" are beginning to realise that they can do without the constitution.

In fact, with time, the constitution may come to be seen as Giscard's follie de grandeur, to be quietly forgotten as a distraction from the serious business of political integration. By a variety of means, though stretching the application of existing treaty provisions, legal adventurism through the European Court of Justice, and "intergovernmental" agreements of the kind that brought us the European Defence Agency, there are plenty of opportunities for furthering the "project" without resorting to a new treaty.

In the fullness of time, there will, of course, be the need for another treaty, but an interim settlement could be achieved – especially in the revision of the "Nice" voting rights – through the accession treaties of Bulgaria and Romania. People forget that accession treaties are still treaties, and it would not be the first time other provisions have been tacked on to them.

On that basis, we are looking at a profoundly depressing situation. With the issue having been marginalised at the general election, in the expectation of a referendum, we stand at risk of not now getting that referendum and the whole "Europe" debate being kicked into touch with nothing resolved – while the march of integration goes on unabated. This has to be the worst of all possible worlds.

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