Monday, May 31, 2004

Summit predictions


There is something comforting about Rees Mogg making predictions in the Times – the joke is that he always gets them wrong so, whatever he forecasts, the one thing you can be assured about is that they will never happen.

But there was another joke recently, in the hilarious "Alex" cartoon in the Telegraph, where the chairman of "Megabank" fired an analyst for getting his predictions right. His "crime" was that he had been so consistently wrong in the past that he was relied upon as a bell-weather. Coming up with the right answer completely destroyed his own value.

There is something of this in Rees Mogg’s latest prediction where, in a general piece about UKIP, he makes some forecasts about the summit on 17/18 June. "There may be further disagreement on the formula for qualified majority voting", he notes, "in which case Mr Blair would escape the odium of having to veto the treaty."

The alternative is that Blair will "have to decide whether to pretend that his red lines - if he gets them - are a sufficient protection for British independence, or veto the treaty and come home as the champion of British sovereignty."

Rees Mogg is tempted to think that Blair will take the most favourable political course. "Early in the morning of Saturday, June 19, the heads of government will break up, bleary-eyed; Tony Blair will say that he has not been able to get his red lines, that he cannot sign the treaty, and will come home to universal applause, waving the flag of St George".

Writes Mogg, "That would make sense of his decision to call a referendum that he never had any chance of winning. It would also obey one of his consistent rules, never to leave a popular issue to the Opposition. The European constitution is a strong issue; it is irretrievably unpopular, and the Conservatives are on the right side of it".

Actually, Rees Mogg is probably right on the first count. With caretaker Polish prime minister Marek Belka upping the ante on majority voting, moving away from the Irish compromise rather than towards it, the summit is most likely to fail on that issue alone. As with the summit last December, Blair's "red lines" will never actually be discussed. He will be able to come home with his reputation as a European player unsullied.

And if the majority voting issue is not enough, there is every indication that the inclusion of "Christian values" in the constitution could also prove a breaking point. It may have its amusement quotient, but the advocates of its inclusion are deadly serious, as yesterday’s statement from the European Movement in Malta demonstrated.

But the issue takes on a new dimension with the news that Schr̦der is courting the 500,000-strong Turkish vote in his own country, to boost the flagging electoral fortunes of his Social Democratic Party. If he is to keep the Turks on-side, he cannot afford to permit the reference to Christianity in the constitution. Thus, the irresistible force of the Catholic countries Рbacked by the Vatican Рis shaping up for a collision with the immovable object of Germany.

With Ahern now forecasting only a 50-50 chance of success, what we can now expect is a series of increasingly clear signals from the "players", talking down the chances of success at the June summit. By the time it is held, the expectations of success will be minimal and the damage arising from its failure will be contained.

The pity of it all is that the media will then pack up its tents and take the EU off the agenda. As Booker remarked in one of his recent columns, this means that the debate on the whole issue of Britain’s membership of the EU will not take place – at least, not in the immediate future. However, as we know from experience, the "colleagues" never give up. This will be more a matter of postponing the debate, rather than abandoning it.

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