Wednesday, May 19, 2004

End game in sight?


One can applaud the Daily Telegraph this morning for at last taking the foreign ministers’ meeting seriously – the only newspaper to elevate the story to its front page, displacing the news on the Olympic games shortlist. And congratulations to Ambrose Evans-Pritchard for picking up that which all the others seem to have missed – that Straw is preparing to give up some of his "red lines".

His article today is a graphic example of how, when dealing with EU politics, the devil is in the detail, the subtle nuances of word and expression that give the game away.

Thus does Ambrose spot Straw’s statement - there would be no deal unless Britain got its way: "If we do not get the key red lines..." we won’t sign up for the treaty – and contrast it with EU officials’ observations that Straw had referred to key red lines, taking it to mean that lesser red lines could be rubbed away. This is journalism at its best.

Many people will also applaud the Telegraph’s editorial, which argues that Straw is softening us up for the constitution: "You can always tell when a British minister is about to sell us down the river in Europe: he first wraps himself in the flag. Jack Straw was at it again… 'battling for Britain'..." as he prepares to give away the veto on criminal justice harmonisation.

Once again, though, this analysis is narrowly Anglo-centric, and misses the bigger picture. Much as the British media are determined to paint these negotiations as "Britain versus the rest", something with which Fischer and Barnier seem happy to fall in, there is a lot more going on than just the spat with Britain.

Oddly enough, it is the Independent which best conveys this, reporting what amounts to a growing rebellion by the smaller states, who have served notice that they may not sign up to a compromise over voting weights.

What is interesting here is that Finland's foreign minister, Erkki Tuomioja, clearly speaking for others as well as his own country, complained: "We are very concerned that the [Irish] presidency has treated this issue as a bilateral negotiation between France and Germany on the one had and Poland and Spain on the other". He said small countries are "not at all happy with the state of play over the extent of majority voting".

This is the central question, which overshadows the whole negotiations and, to that extent, the spat between Straw and the French and Germans is a side show. Not least of the problems is the attitude taken by Spain – which wants to raise the population threshold on majority voting to 66 percent, to enhance its ability to block measures it opposes. Here there is going to be a monumental battle, which is going to be difficult to resolve.

Inevitably, however, the British media will continue to feel the need to pander to what they think a British audience wants to read and see, but it is the wider perspective – the "noises off" - which are telling the real story. Those "noises" are saying very clearly that the June summit is doomed.

What happens next is the million dollar question. Here, the Scotsman gives us a clue. "Should the constitution not be settled by the end of the Irish presidency," it writes, "its prospects of ever being agreed will fall sharply, because the Dutch, who take over the EU presidency in July, are unlikely to give a high priority to salvaging the treaty. Jan Peter Balkenende, the free-market Dutch prime minister, last month said EU leaders ‘need to concentrate on the European economy’ instead of institutional reform".

And what then? Many commentators liken the European Union to a bicycle. You have to keep peddling forwards, or you fall off. If the constitution fails, the bicycle stops. Are we seeing the end game for the project?

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