Tuesday, May 18, 2004

A multi-dimensional game


Predictably, the British press are taking a determinedly Anglo-centric view of the current round of negotiations in Brussels, over the constitution. This is typified by the coverage in the Financial Times, which headlines its story "UK under fire for trying to water down EU constitution".

According to this source, France and Germany delivered "a strong warning to Britain" to stop trying to water down the constitution. Fischer and Barnier had attacked British attempts to "salami slice" the draft treaty with successive amendments. Mr Barnier is reported to have said later that he was not prepared to accept "a constitution on the cheap", and warned against any further dilution of the draft treaty.

The Times took a similar line, as did the Independent and the Sun, and The Telegraph offers "Germany loses its temper over British 'salami tactics'", following a similar line – although the story is not published in all print editions. At least Ambrose Evans-Pritchard, albeit belatedly, makes some reference to the Polish situation – which in the longer term will probably have more influence than the posturing of the French and Germans.

However, in general, it is probably fair to say that the British coverage – which conveys the impression that "doughty Britain" is standing up for its rights against those nasty foreigners, represented by the Franco-German axis - does not properly or at all reflect what is going on in Brussels. The game being played out is much more subtle than that.

Some clue as to the nature of the game was given Jack Straw in an interview on the Today Programme this morning. Recalling how it was that the last summit in December broke up because of the stand taken by Poland and Spain, he observed that there were other countries which had their own reservations, but these were not aired. They did not need to be, because the summit was going to break up anyway.

The same dynamic is at play here. The media may focus on one or other issue, depending on national interests and prejudices, but behind the headlines are stacked all manner of reservations by disparate and shifting alliances of member states. The Irish have a virtually impossible job as the negotiations are taking on the aspect of an onion – peel off one layer of objections and another one appears. There is a distinct possibility that, as with the proverbial onion, once the very last layer has been removed, there will be nothing left.

What the media also seem to have missed is the way the Irish presidency – in the form of Bertie Ahern – have been up front in its determination to see the constitution come to a conclusion in June, while at the same time shovelling amendments into the text that make it virtually certain that this will not come about.

In this, there is an inexplicable contradiction. Ahern in his words has made no secret of the fact that he would regard a constitution agreed in June as the crowning pinnacle of his long, and sometimes less than illustrious political career, but his actions seem intent on ensuring failure.

This is but one facet of a fascinating, multi-dimensional game of extraordinary subtlety and complexity. Rather like cricket, where the real enjoyment comes only with comprehensive understanding, so EU-watching only comes alive when the subtlety of the game is appreciated.

As do those who are ignorant of cricket see only figures dressed in white, and a man with a bat hitting a ball, so do the many commentators of the EU scene see only single-dimensional battles between the main players. Therein lies the view that EU politics is "boring" and only of limited appeal. The truth is that the limitations of the reporting have made it so.

To finish on a positive note, however, it is not all bad. The Times is at least attempting to cater for us "nerds" who find the EU interesting, and believe in the importance of being informed. It has set up a dedicated web page, making accessible all its recent coverage on the constitution. To access this site, click here. Suspiciously similar to this Blog, it is nevertheless a welcome addition.

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