Monday, April 26, 2004

Here we go again

Helen Szamuely

The Foreign Ministers of the EU member states have decided that talks on the EU constitution should re-start on May 17 to end on June 18. Perhaps they should read some history: they have made Waterloo Day the deadline for an agreement on the EU constitution.

The Foreign Ministers of the EU member states have spoken in Luxembourg. They have decided to restart negotiations on the EU Constitution on May 17. This will give them a month to fudge the issues, I mean, to iron out the differences, in time for the June 18 deadline. As every school child ought to know but does not, June 18 is Waterloo Day. Is that a good omen or bad for the European integrationists?

The assumption is that Poland has changed its mind about being fractious (or has been bought off) and the new Spanish government will be more amenable to EU “reason”. It is worth noting that all Spanish governments have been amenable as long as they could see some advantage in whatever was being proposed to themselves.

Jack Straw has proclaimed that the British “red lines” will remain in place. They are: foreign policy, taxation, social security, defence and euro-budget. It is as well to remember that list, since the chances are the government will not. In fact, it is an odd list altogether.

The principle of common foreign and security policy, which includes defence, has been accepted by Britain already – it is the practice that eludes the EU. While the basic strategies have to be decided unanimously, more detailed activity can go to QMV even now. Much of the matter that surrounds taxation is decided by majority voting already. That leaves social security and the euro-budget. So far we have not heard of the British government exercising its veto in either of those fields.

One wonders how many of the details of social security may find themselves in other sections. We all remember how the Working Time Directive became part of health and safety rather than the Social Chapter from which John Major had negotiated an opt-out at Maastricht.

Meanwhile Tony Blair has been lambasted in a letter, carefully leaked to Reuters News Agency, by 52 former British ambassadors, high commissioners and governors for not wielding sufficient influence with the Americans in the Middle East. Of course, if Britain spent less money on, let us say, the Foreign Office or the European Parliament, and more on defence, she might be able to carry more weight in international affairs.

The high panjandrums of diplomacy seem to think that everything done by the Anglo-American alliance and coalition troops in the Middle East has been wrong. They quote unsupported figures on the numbers killed in Iraq and avow that the whole enterprise is a disaster. Bush’s support for Sharon’s plan to withdraw from Gaza but keep some of the West Bank is also a disaster according to the great men.

There is an interesting twist to the analysis that comes either from the high panjandrums or the Reuters journalist who reports the letter: “It comes as Blair faces deep discontent among voters for backing a US-led war that most Britons had opposed and for endorsing a Washington-driven policy that has put London on collision course with allies in Europe.”

None of that, in particular not the last phrase, are substantiated but there will be many neat little twists like this in the media in the next few months on subjects seemingly unrelated to the EU constitution.

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