Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Operation apathy

In a meeting here with a leading Washington think-tank, Booker and I sketched out the bizarre situation in the UK, where the ratification of the Lisbon treaty had become virtually a non-event.

Intuitively, we had already divined that the commission was keeping its head down, keeping contentious issues out of the headlines in order not to frighten the natives, and we conveyed this impression to our hosts.

How instructive it was, therefore, to return to the net to find Bruno Waterfield's blog which discusses a Foreign Office memo showing "clear collusion between British and Irish officials to keep the European Union out of the headlines at the time the House of Commons was debating a referendum".

This, of course, picks up on my colleague's post retailing Antony Coughlan's circulation of the details of an article in the Irish Daily Mail, whose journalists had found that the Irish government had hatched an elaborate plan to deceive voters over the forthcoming EU treaty referendum.

What Bruno adds is the view that it would be naïve to think that collusion does not extend across EU chanceries, embassies and ministries, plus confirming the fact that the EU commission is "willing tone down or delay messages" that might be unhelpful to the ratification process.

Says Bruno, this is firmly denied here in Brussels, though often with a knowing simper or wink, but he points to more evidence of "operation apathy" with the announcement that a consultation on EU budget reform has been extended until 15 June – after the Irish referendum – in order to avoid politically sensitive discussions on farm subsidies and Britain's £3 billion annual rebate.

Public debate now is inconvenient, he adds: the message from our rulers is clear: "Now is not the time to think about or debate the EU."

The trouble is that, outside the ranks of committed Eurosceptics, the fact that the EU has decided not to promote a debate about issues very few people were interested in anyway, is hardly big news. You will not, for instance, see front-page headlines proclaiming: "EU avoids debate on treaty, shock!", or any UK politicians complaining that "Europe" is not being given high profile treatment.

Apathy about the EU there always has been, but now it seems that the governments of the member states, with the collusion of the commission, have turned it into an art form.

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