Friday, May 14, 2004

North Sea Oil – a non event

Much has been made, in certain quarters, of the "defeat" of the attempt, supposedly to bring Britain’s North Sea Oil reserves under the ultimate control of the EU. Actually, this is a non-event; some might even say a "red herring". The issue has served merely to distract from more important provisions in the new Irish draft.

For sure, energy was in the original draft of the constitution (Article III-157), with a provision that would have empowered the EU to "ensure security of energy supply in the Union". This text was so widely drawn that commentators were quite right to make a fuss about it. Knowing the EU’s penchant for turning loosely worded, general provisions into fully-fledged policies, back by a raft of competences, there was good reason to fear that a take-over grab was in the offing.

However, in the important but much-ignored presidency "working document" or "non-proposal" of last week, Article III-157, was effectively eviscerated. The vague wording of the original was changed to exclude Community action, by stating that no EU laws could affect a member state’s "right to determine the conditions for exploiting its energy resources and the structure of its supply…".

To that was added a declaration that the "Conference" believed that the article did not affect the right of the member states "to take the necessary action to ensure their energy supply…". With that, Article III-157 was effectively a dead letter. Deleting it in its entirety from the very latest draft was simply acknowledging that fact.

Nevertheless, as Ambrose Evans-Pritchard reported in the Daily Telegraph this morning, British diplomats are still preaching caution. Said one, "others could demand that we put energy back in the text".

Here, there may be an effect on the forthcoming ministerial meeting. If member state representatives waste time squabbling over whether this provision should be reinserted, and then spend further time arguing over the text, in the face of implacable British hostility, the opportunities to deal with other, much more pressing issues will be even more limited.

A squabble over energy, therefore, could be yet another factor which drives an already overloaded agenda into the buffers, and makes bringing the constitution to a conclusion at the June summit – if it happens – an even more unlikely prospect than it is already.

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