Saturday, October 30, 2004

In for the long haul

At least Blair had the decency - if it can be called that – to skip the grand, ceremonial banquet in Rome yesterday, after signing the constitution, this time having the excuse of his recent operation, allowing him to claim tiredness.

But early departures are something of a feature of Blair’s "engagement with Europe", most notably at Porto Carras in July 2003, when Giscard presented his famous draft constitution to heads of state and government.

Also of note then, Berlusconi had taken on socialist leader, MEP Martin Schulz, likening him to a Nazi concentration camp guard. How sweet Schulz must now regard his "victory" of bouncing Buttiglione and embarrassing Berlusconi. As they say, revenge is a dish best eaten cold.

That, at least, gave the press corps something else to do, other than witness the ungainly bunch step forward and add their signatures to the document of infamy, and if they were at least fairly positive about the event, we now know why.

All the journalists attending, and there were 1,890 accredited, each was provided with a gift pack comprising pen, notepad and a set of mugs – just the things that no respectable hacks would have thought to bring with them. Cameramen, strangely enough, were given their own disposable cameras. One can imagine what they did with them.

Other statistics give some idea of the scale of the event. there were 580 PC stations, provided, 20 plasma screens set up for the assembled hacks to watch the proceedings, served by 42 video cameras; 30 press agency mobile stations were kitted out. To serve the electronic media, 250 km of cable and 60 km of fibre optic cable was laid, and to deal with the more immediate needs of the press, there were 90 hostesses on call – a mere one per 200 hacks.

And just in case they were bored, 1500 copies of the preliminary speeches to the signing of the constitution were provided, with 1800 CD ROMs on the constitution – one wonders which version.

Back home, Michael Howard had already dismissed the constitution, in a speech to Goldman Sachs stating that "The EU was designed to liberate our markets. Instead it has burdened them with extra costs and regulations, undermining their ability to compete… yet far from addressing these problems, the European Constitution will compound them."

The constitution "will be a giant ball and chain round the ankle of British business," he added.
Shadow foreign secretary, Michael Ancram, also weighed in with his personal condemnation, saying: "What we are seeing today is the opposite of democracy in action. The pomp and ceremony of seeing a treaty which the British people have indicated in opinion poll after opinion poll they do not want to see shows, in my view, a contempt for people."

Good stuff, for once.

Howard and Ancram has an unexpected ally in Italian Institutional Reform Minister, Roberto Calderoli. He has told his boss, Berlusconi, that he was "against the new EU Constitution" which he saw as "negative and involving a transfer of popular sovereignty." "Therefore", he added, "the Italians must vote. I am going to propose the approval of an ad hoc constitutional bill allowing the people to vote. A simple ratification bill is not enough".

If Berlusconi does need a replacement for Buttiglione, he has a likely candidate here.
Straw, of course, is gung-ho for the whole thing, telling us that it might be in March 2006, but also stating that the British referendum "won't necessarily be the last one of all the member states." Asked if Britain might not hold a referendum if France had already rejected it, he said "All sorts of things are possible."

Blair, we are told, is hoping to use Britain's EU presidency to launch the referendum, hoping he can keep the issue on the back burner until after the election, although he has to publish a bill within weeks of next month's Queen's Speech, in order to get the referendum underway, and to start the ratification process.

The idea is to get it over quickly, so as to clear the way for the election. That plan may, however, be scuppered by the Hunting Bill, if it is delayed by the Lords.

But, if things do go to plan, that puts the referendum campaign proper starting in July 2005, giving Blair nine months to get his message across. One can almost empathise with Bertie Ahern, who wants his referendum in Ireland to be "be the last for a long time."

There again, if some countries vote against the constitution in their referendums, they could make them the best of three… five, er… seven… Either way, we are in for the long haul. Just as well those journalists got their free notepads and pens.

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