Friday, September 17, 2004

Mr Blair would feel at home

In a sort of public-spirited way, one worries about Times columnist Peter Riddell – as to whether it is really humane to allow somebody so stupid out on his own. One feels he should be locked up in a caring environment for his own safety and fed a diet of mild tranquillisers to calm his fevered brain.

Mind you, even someone as dim as Riddell can get the occasional thing right, as long as it is so blindingly obvious that it scarce needs saying. Thus, one has to agree with the opening statement of his latest column entitled: "Are we ready to be full members of Europe?".

There, our Peter portentously drones that "the real divide over Europe is not about the euro or the constitution but a more basic question: do we want to be full members of the European Union?". So glad you’ve noticed, Peter.

But, that is the only sentence with any coherence. The rest is not so much downhill all the way, but hurled off a steep precipice into a yawning chasm lined with unspeakable sludge, where it founders in the sticky morass.

"This is a matter of attitude more than institutions; whether we treat other countries as allies rather than as potentially obstructive adversaries", quoth the great Riddell. "Too often, Europe is discussed in negative terms, even by politicians who are ostensibly ‘pro’".

What is so dreadfully tedious and predictable here is that the mind of our great scribe clearly has so few brain cells that he cannot get them to connect round that single, illuminating thought that "Europe" is not the European Union, and vice versa.

Without that illumination, everything goes awry. The European Union is, above all else, about institutions. When the European Union is discussed, it is invariable in terms of institutions, and it is the preoccupation of the inwards-looking "Europeans" that they see government in terms of institutions.

Thus, when the European Union is discussed by intelligent Eurosceptics (few enough in number, but there are some) – none of us begin to think of "Europe" in negative terms – how could one be "negative" about a whole continent? But we certainly think of the institutions of the European Union with a wholesome dose of negativity.

Riddell's "implicit theme" is that, in Britain, we are pursuing sensible and successful policies to promote competition and flexibility in the face of global challenges, while the Europeans are inward-looking, sluggish and attached to an outdated social model.

"This analysis of where Europe should be going is largely right", writes Riddell, "but ministers frequently give the impression that Britain alone has the answers. This is not only patronising and tactless, but also mistaken".

All of this, so far, is the build-up and now we get to the meat. Riddell has had a jolly over the weekend, wined and dined at the taxpayers’ expense, courtesy of the EPP-ED group in the European parliament, which has been hosting the annual meeting of the European Ideas Network.

This, according to the EPP-ED website is "an open pan-European think-tank process sponsored by the EPP-ED Group". What a "think-tank process" is, heaven only knows, but we are informed that it was launched in the summer of 2002 and designed to promote new thinking on the key challenges facing the countries of the European Union. According to Riddell, at this latest beanfest,

speaker after speaker talked about the risks of losing out from globalisation, specifically the challenges from India and China. Various working groups highlighted, in language which Gordon Brown could easily have used, the need to deliver on the Lisbon agenda of completing the internal market, to axe or cut those areas of EU legislation which inhibit growth, to redefine the European social model and to cut regulation.
"Nor is it just talk", he writes. Good of him to admit that a lot of it was just that. But we learn that "the Berlusconi, Chirac/Raffarin and Schröder governments are now all pushing through reforms of their welfare, benefit and pension systems". Furthermore, "the Socialists in Spain have also generally stuck to the reformist agenda of the Aznar Government, while José Manuel Durão Barroso, the incoming President of the European Commission, has appointed economics and trade commissioners who are pro-market and free trade".

The trouble with this sort of stuff is that virtually every word needs to be deconstructed and by the time the manifest errors have been revealed, the reader’s eyes have long glazed over.

Suffice to say that Riddell, caught up in the euphoria of the moment - and no doubt fortified by good wine – thinks that all this "reform" presents a problem for the British Conservatives.

The "negative emphasis" of the party’s public statements gives the impression that the Tories are anti-Europe. "Of course", concedes Riddell, "many Tories privately do want Britain to leave the EU, or at least reach some form of accommodation on a referendum on membership with the UKIP". And that puts those Tories favouring "constructive engagement" with the EU (roughly two thirds of the MEPs) are on the defensive.

At least we know now where the opposition is – it has long been felt that the Tory MEP group is a law unto itself, divorced from the main party, and Riddell kindly confirms this. But his loyalty is with this brave band who are, tragically finding it "hard to get a hearing for the undramatic but vital work of arguing for pro-market measures".

"Whatever you think about the EU constitution", Riddell opines, "Britain undoubtedly gains from the EU internal market". Aaaarggghhhhh.

The most powerful pro-EU speech he has heard recently came from a Tory MEP, "arguing the importance of the talks at the end of this week on the extension of mutual recognition of national rules and authorisations of operators in services". That could not happen outside the EU, says Riddell. Yes, Peter. Go and lie down dear and take your tablets.

Fortunately, Riddell then admits defeat. "Despite the activity of British MEPs of all parties, we remain awkwardly on the outside", he whines.

"It was revealing to see the Spanish, German, Swedish and Belgian Christian Democrats warmly greeting each other as part of the same political family, of which Mr Howard is clearly not a close member. The only British political leader who might have felt at home is Tony Blair, at heart a continental Christian Democrat".

Mr Riddell, does that not tell you something? Do you really think that a construct in which Tony Blair would feel at home is something that we should want anything to do with?

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