Saturday, June 18, 2005

Not time for the obituaries

The worldly-wise, knowing of the way of politicians, will know as a matter of fundamental truth, that politicians facing elections behave differently from those who are secure in office.

This dynamic is probably central to the understanding of some of the events at the European Council over the last three days when European leaders have been under an intense media spotlight. While this has been their opportunity to strut on the European stage, most importantly of all, this is the time when they are under scrutiny by their own domestic media and, for those facing election, the image presented is vital to political wellbeing.

It is in that context that much of what has happened must be viewed, particularly in terms of the behaviour of Chirac and Schröder, both of whom have been talking to, and posturing for, their own domestic audiences.

Of the two, Chirac is probably easier to read. Having taking a humiliating blow at the referendum and suffering the worst-ever approval rating of any French president since polling began, he still has ambitions – however folorn – of standing for a third term.

Given the disarray of the opposition socialists, which have yet to produce a credible alternative candidiate and may even be thinking of fielding Jospin again, who is to say, in fact, that Chirac's aspirations are that folorn, as long as he can see off the pretender Sarkozy. With the presidential elections in spring 2007, he has two short years to re-build his electoral base which, for the UMP, is largely rural, a constitutency which deserted him in the referendum and must be reclaimed.

In all probability, therefore, over the duration of the European Council, it is to that constituency that Chirac has been speaking. The message has not been aimed at the Parisian clever-dicks or the political sophisticates, but to the "sons of the soil" in deepest rural France, who are deeply suspicious of the political classes, of "globalisation", of "les rossbifs", and to whom the message from the Council will have played extremely well.

As for Schröder, he is facing electoral meltdown in the autumn and very few think he can salvage the position, the "smart money" being on the right-of-centre Christian Democrat Angela Merkel taking the chancellorship. The chances are, therefore, that Schröder is in Kamakazi mode, wanting to take down the edifice before he goes, the electoral equivalent of laying waste the countryside and poisoning the wells in the face of an advancing enemy.

From either of those politicians, therefore, you are not getting a snapshot of "European statesmanship" nor even any reflection of the state of play in the European Union. Never more has the aphorism, "if you think you understand it, you haven't been listening" been true. Thus, while anyone immersed in the Council hothouse over the last three days, or listening to the over-excited gibberings of the hacks on the spot, might feel they have gained an insight into the workings of the great machine, as we have been at pains to point out, virtually ad nauseam, it has all been theatre, mainly played out to the different domestic audiences of Europe.

Into that hothouse has been pitched the extraordinarily incompetent Jean-Claude Juncker, prime minister of Luxembourg, a country little larger than an average English borough with a gene pool to match. His inept handling of the presidency, his frankly crass management of the Council negotiations, and his lamentable performances at the press conferences, have virtually single-handedly turned a minor drama into a crisis, giving the press gallery copy they would kill for.

With Chirac playing the drama queen, decribed by the media as "puce", and a Schröder, "white with rage" puffing himself up with artificial fury, not least because Blair is cosying up to Merkel, all it needed was for Juncker to come up with his now infamous phrase: "Europe is not in a state of crisis… it is in a state of profound crisis," and the copy-writers had all they needed.

This, however, was from a man who most needed a long, hot, refreshing Radox bath and a good night's sleep. Sir Stephen Wall, on the Today programme this morning – a man I have no time for at all – did put it in perspective. There is no actual crisis on the budget, he said, and it would have been unprecedented if an agreement had been reached this early in the game. In the final analysis, it was a crisis only because Juncker allowed it to become one.

As for the British prime minister, he seems to have enjoyed his place at the centre of attention and, from a no-care-Blair of last week, he is suddenly back in the game with some of his old gusto. But, while he is talking profoundly of a "fundamental debate" about the role of Europe, his rhetoric is about what the European Union should be doing, not about the nature of the EU and whether we should be taking it apart.

In other words, for all the expenditure of a great deal of hot air, not a lot has changed. And, as we pointed out, in a few weeks time, there will be the G8 summit. The once attentive, all-knowing hacks will have lost interest in the drama and will have moved on. Soon enough though, we will have another "deep crisis" and another, and the hacks will gather and prattle. But I would not be writing the obituaries of the European Union just yet.

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