Sunday, June 10, 2007

Going off half-cock

If you want to take a sounding of the public temper, one way might be to turn to Google News, where you will find, at last count, 4,834 entries on the latest twist in the saga of Paris Hilton's jail sentence – or, if you want something closer to home, you can try the 347 entries on "Big Brother". That compares with 70 on the forthcoming EU treaty – most of which are derivative reports on a story in this morning's Sunday Telegraph.

When that story is clearly a cut-and-paste, identikit lash-up by two of Fleet Street's least trustworthy political journalists – and that is saying something – you have the measure of the beast. Our future within the maw of the European Union – important though it is – is simply not a mainstream issue and it is taking all the ingenuity of two hacks, employing all their journalistic tricks, to make a story of it at all.

Thus do Patrick Hennessy and Melissa Kite tells us that, "Labour has been plunged into a bruising referendum row after Tony Blair secretly agreed the blueprint for a new European treaty - presenting Gordon Brown, the prime minister-in-waiting, with his first big dilemma."

If nothing else, lacking as it does any verifiable detail, that must get the prize for hyperbole. It presses all the right buttons, with its dark hints of secret agreements and top-level political rows. But one can imagine the wan smiles of both Brown and Blair, if they can even be bothered to read the piece, as they dismiss yet another formulaic script.

The substance of the Hennessy/Kite "scoop" could not be thinner. It is nothing more than a brief meeting between Blair and Sarkozy during the recent G8 summit in Berlin, where both men agreed that the forthcoming EU treaty – if it comes off – should be a new slimline treaty and not simply a cut down version of the failed EU constitution.

Sarkozy's precise words, as reported by Reuters in a subsequent press conference, were: "Tony Blair and I have just agreed on what might be the framework for a simplified treaty. That is quite something … We agreed that it should be a new treaty and not a small constitution."

You can read as much or as little as you like into this, but it is clear that the Hennessy/Kite duo have chosen to go for maximum impact, creating round this unexceptional event an aura of political drama – but one that simply does not exist. So desperate are the duo, though, that they reiterate the patent falsehood that:

…in what will be his last big diplomatic gesture before stepping down, Mr Blair will sign Britain up to the new treaty, which is designed to increase the EU's power and to enact many of the proposals originally planned for the constitution.
One can understand and entirely sympathise with the Eurosceptic desire to put EU issues on the political agenda. Indeed, some may discern in this blog a certain tendency in that direction. But one does wonder what purpose is being served by crying wolf. Nothing is more calculated to kill a nascent campaign than to march the troops up to the top of the hill and then tell them it was all a false alarm.

In normal times, two successive editorials, one in today's Sunday Telegraph and the other in yesterday's Daily Telegraph would be enough to get the pulses racing, buoyed up with the feeling that we were stoking up the issue.

Certainly, with the intervention of the Boy Cameron, "demanding" a referendum, this is enough to get Tory Diary briefly excited but, as with the two newspapers, there is something empty and ritualistic in their protestations.

It takes the Sunday Times, therefore – with its much bigger circulation – to bring the groupescules back down to earth, with a downbeat story telling us that the prime minister soon-to-be, Gordon Brown, "is insisting he will not be bound by any new European Union constitution and that Britain must have opt-outs from key elements if any treaty is agreed at a summit of EU leaders at the end of this month."

Even then, we get the possibility that a treaty will be signed – which it will not – but the tenor of the story makes it clear that there is everything to play for, in a situation which is about as clear as mud.

In two short weeks, however, we will know the worst, in that the discussion documents, which will form the basis of the IGC negotiations, will at least be on the table. The bulk of the contents will be highly technical and obscure, but there will be a few high-profile issues that the Eurosceptics can get their teeth stuck into.

But, after a brief rush of media interest, we will be in to the long hot summer. It will be well into the autumn political season before the tempo begins to pick up and we begin to see how the parties are shaping up for the final dénouement of the IGC summit. That will be time enough to raise the temperature of the debate, when we are working with known issues and can make intelligent guesses as to the outcome.

For the time being, however, frustrating though it is, a watching brief is in order. Going off half-cock simply plays into the hands of the enemy.

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