Monday, January 24, 2005

No plan B

There is a flurry of articles in the Financial Times today on the EU constitution, with the paper speculating – probably correctly – that it will not be endorsed by parliament until early next year in a new signal that Tony Blair wants to delay confronting public scepticism.

"Whitehall insiders," we are told, are saying that the Bill to ratify the treaty is not now expected to become law until December or January, as the Tories gear up to challenge the government in parliament.

The Bill is to be published this week or next although Foreign Office officials had originally been pressing for it to have its first reading before Christmas so it would reach the statute book before the general election expected in May.

They had wanted to avoid a parliamentary clash overshadowing Britain's EU presidency in the second half of the year. Now it looks as if the debate will be running through the course of the presidency, giving the opposition plenty of opportunity to air its objections, at exactly the time Blair was hoping to make his pitch for the benefits of the EU.

Ian Taylor, a pro-EU Tory MP, is clearly not happy. As befits his ilk, he has condemned Blair for agreeing to a referendum in the first place. "Because Blair's not been robust enough, because he's been dilatory and because he's held back, he's got this curse hanging over him," he says.

Accompanying this news piece, Cathy Newman writes that the "Stakes high for Blair as he looks for place in history," reminding us that it is less than 18 months to go until the referendum.
Yet, despite the scale of the challenge ahead, she writes, Blair appears to be in no rush to make good his oft- repeated promise to make the case for Britain's place in Europe.

Despite the delay in progressing the ratification Bill, the prescient Newman observes, "this time the prime minister cannot run away from the issue. The referendum will be held in May or June next year, and if the public votes against, Britain's relationship with Europe would be plunged into crisis."

Says Labour peer, Lord Radice, "Majority opinion is very shallow and clearly could be turned around by a very strong campaign. But we will need an absolutely terrific campaign. "Blair will have to put his life and soul into this issue as he hasn't really done on Europe."

The government's attack will be three-pronged, focusing on how the new treaty is vital for an enlarged EU, how the anti-Europeans have been peddling misinformation about what it entails", and how ratification is essential to safeguard Britain's place in Europe.

And never fear. Denis MacShame says the government has got a secret weapon up its sleeve. "These are the facts on Europe. For years people have just had the myths, propaganda and the anti-European arguments from the isolationists. For the next 18 months the facts about Europe will be put to people and I am confident they will not want to isolate Britain from Europe."

That brings us to the third FT article, this one by George Parker, headlined: "Seeking positives from a negative". It tells us that "There is no Plan B if Britain says ‘No’ to the European Union constitution, at least not officially."

But across Europe thoughts are turning to how the EU would manage a separation - or divorce - from its most truculent big member state. For the EU to have a fully formed Plan B before national referendums would be "political suicide", according to one senior EU official, an insult to voters and evidence of Brussels arrogance.

But behind the scenes, lawyers and politicians are conjuring up their own contingency plans. On one thing they agree: a British No would create a political crisis for the EU. The constitutional treaty must be ratified by all 25 member states for it to come into force, a process that must be completed by the autumn of 2006. Ten countries, including Britain, are to ratify by referendum.

Not only is Britain the most likely country to say No, according to opinion polls, but its size and political climate make it a particularly difficult case to deal with. In the event that other countries vote No, EU diplomats can usually agree on what happens next.

If France or the Netherlands voted No this spring the constitution would be "dead" in the words of one diplomat from Luxembourg, holder of the EU presidency. Both countries are founding members of the club; a No by either would force a big rethink of the treaty.

If a small, non-founding member said 'No' - such as Denmark or the Czech Republic - the voters would simply be asked the question again in the hope they change their minds, possibly after a few tweaks to address national concerns. However, the chances of British voters being asked the same question a second time seem slim, given the deeply Eurosceptic political and media climate.

If by the spring of 2006 most other EU members have ratified the treaty, diplomats in Brussels say the pressure on the UK would be intense. Legally the situation is clear: without unanimous ratification, the treaty would not come into force. But politically Britain would come under intense pressure to let other members press ahead under the new constitution.

In the end the answer to the British question would be political, not legal. The most likely scenario would be a deal under which the others forged ahead under the constitution, while the UK negotiated a working arrangement with the new EU.

It would be messy and uncertain, not least because it would be unclear exactly which part of the new treaty British voters had rejected. But, says Parker, any deal would be unlikely to be preferential to Britain.

The UK would find itself on the outer fringes of the club, in self-imposed exile from not just the euro and the Schengen passport-free travel area, but opposed to the founding rules of the club itself.

That is the FT view. It also happens to be the government's view. We will be hearing a lot more of this.

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