Sunday, June 12, 2005

It's not rocket science

Having just wasted an hour watching the BBC Politics Show, on the promise that there would be an interview with Barroso, I came to the conclusion that I would have been better off watching this.

Not that the Sunday newspapers are much better when it comes to divining what on earth is going on, but I was mildly entertained by Hannan's op-ed in The Sunday Telegraph, who puts his finger on the spot with the heading: "When in trouble, blame the Brits".

"The leaders of Old Europe are still reeling from their referendum results," he writes. "They cannot bring themselves to accept that their peoples have turned against them. Dazed and disoriented, they have lashed out at a familiar target: it is all the fault of Tony Blair." He continues:

Reading the French, Spanish or German press last week, you would have had the impression that Blair on his own - rather than 20 million French "no" voters - had blocked the European Constitution. The Continental political class is engaging in a collective act of what psychologists call displacement, externalising something which they do not like in themselves.
But, in many respects, Hannan – and many other commentators – are being far too polite. This whole rebate issue has been got up by one man, Jacques L'Escroc Chirac. This is the man of whom it was once said that he could steal a pot of jam and when challenged - with his fingers still in the jar and the booty smeared on his lips - he could look you in the eyes and say, without a blush: "Moi, monsieur? But I don't eat jam."

Not for nothing is the man called L'Escroc. His alternative moniker, of course, is "superliar", and the two epithets accurately describe the man. He is an inveterate liar, a thief and, as many who have had to deal with him will attest, a merciless bully. And he also happens to be president of France, a man who, in trouble in his own country, with the lowest approval rating for any president of France since records began, is seeking to divert attention from his own woes, a move so transparent that even Downing Street has noticed.

On this basis, Blair's rebuff, challenging L'Escroc to give up his farming subsidies before there could be any negotiations of the rebate was well judged. It is precisely the thing Chirac cannot and will not do – not least because the power base of his UMP party lies in the rural domains of France. Even to hint at touching subsidies would be political suicide.

What is amazing, though, is that anyone is prepared even to begin to take the prospect of agricultural report seriously. It is purely a negotiating ploy – a "stopper" if you like, with not the remotest prospect of getting anywhere. Yet we see earnest leaders in the Sunday Times today and The Guardian yesterday, their writers behaving, for all the world, as if the issue is seriously on the table.

The thing is that it really does not take rocket science to work out what is happening. We all know that frère Jacques wants the constitution ratification process to continue and, in particular, wants Blair to run his referendum. Behind the scenes, he has been building an alliance of other member states to support him, not least Austria yesterday. At the European Council at the end of this week, he will thus be able to confront Blair with a solid phalanx of leaders all demanding the same thing.

But, having raised the temperature on the rebate, he can then offer Blair a face-saver. Magnaminously, he can tell the British prime minister that the rebate is safe – the "colleagues" will let him keep it. But in return, monsieur, there is but one small concession, your referendum, s’il vous plaît.

Blair can come home a hero, having safeguarded the iconic rebate – which was never really at risk and – wholly in the democratic interest of allowing the British people to have their say, of course – will also announce that we are to have a referendum. He cares not whether he loses it and the Chirac will be praying that the British do their duty and throw out the constitution. Only then can he or his successor put it to the French people in a second referendum and get the "project" back on track.

All the rest is fluff.

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