Friday, June 03, 2005

"The reports of my death are greatly exaggerated"

So spoke Mark Twain, but if the EU constitution could speak for itself, that would undoubtedly be its response to the Daily Telegraph headline this morning which proclaims: "Britain shelves vote on Euro treaty".

The substance of the report looks unequivocal – that Jack Straw is to address the Commons on Monday, when he is going to announce suspension of the Europe Bill and therefore any atempts to ratify the constitution. Although the Bill could be reintroduced at a later date, The Telegraph claims that "Whitehall officials" have said that "there was no prospect or intention of doing so."

Effectively, that means the constitution is dead. But there is more to this than meets the eye. Close scrutiny of the report reveals that: "The British Government's decision to drop the referendum Bill was taken after several tense rounds of discussions between Mr Straw and Tony Blair", and that: "Sources close to Downing Street said Mr Straw was far more eager than Mr Blair to declare the constitutional treaty dead after the French vote on Sunday."

But, we also learn that: "the Foreign Secretary was told by Mr Blair that any decision to do so had to be taken collectively by all EU leaders at the Brussels summit as the Prime Minister did not want Britain to be blamed for killing it."

On the other hand, there is Sir Stephen Wall, Mr Blair's former chief adviser on Europe and ex-ambassador to Brussels, who has long believed a referendum could be won. He said yesterday on Newsnight: "I think there is no hope now. It was only winnable if we left our referendum until others had all voted Yes, and argued we had to do the same to avoid isolation. We cannot do that now."

The important thing here is that that is not the official position and should not be confused with it. On the lunchtime World at One programme on BBC Radio 4, the Foreign Office was asked to field a spokesman but offered only the terse statement that Mr Straw will make a statement on Monday and has "nothing further to say" until then.

Earlier, World at One replayed an interview with Jack Straw on 18 May, when he said that, "the clear legal obligation that each member state signed up to was to ratify the constitution… unless the European Council decides to abrogate". He said as much on Sky News on Monday, stating that the "ownership" of the treaty rested with the European Council, and therefore the decision to abandon ratification could only be taken by the Council.

Nothing since, from the lips of either Straw or Blair has been said that would in any way contradict these statements. The rest is innuendo, speculation and unattributed sources. The best explanation for this torrent is that it represents an attempt by Blair to prevail upon the colleagues voluntarily to abandon the treaty, something he does not dare to force on them.

Thus, the report from The Times is slightly more helpful, as it only reports a "British move to suspend vote deepens European rift".

Britain, it says, "is leading moves to shelve the European constitution until EU leaders agree a way forward after the emphatic 'no' vote in France and the Netherlands." It claims that Straw is expected to tell MPs on Monday that legislation paving the way for a British referendum will be suspended “until there is 'clarity' from EU leaders."

Looking at this wording carefully, the report is entirely compatible with Straw suspending proceedings until 16 June, when the Heads of State and Governments have made their views known. It a long way from confirming that any suspension will be indefinite.

On this basis, the Times's own leader, which opens with the words: "The European 'constitution', that peculiar mixture of vanity and vacuity, is dead," is but an example itself of the "vanity and vacuity" which seems to be afflicting the entire British press corps as it blunders around trying to make some sense of the current situation.

The Guardian is more cautious, simply reporting that there are "Crisis talks as treaty nears collapse". But it does say that Jack Straw will announce that the government is to "put on hold legislation needed before a British referendum", although it adds that Straw will use sensitive language. He will probably avoid the word "suspend", says The Guardian, and will certainly not "withdraw" it.

That leaves The Independent to blether away and, as usual, it does not disappoint, headlining: "British plan to put EU treaty on ice gathers more support". So do rolling stones, chuck – but your point is?

The British idea, it seems is for Blair to ask France and The Netherlands whether they intend to put the question to their peoples in second referendums and, in the absence of any such commitment, he believes he can assume that the ratification process is dead.

That, however, is to reckon without the procedures of the European Council – which the hacks still insist on calling a "summit" and that buffoon Haskins on lunchtime radio referred to as "The Council of Ministers". As we have remarked before, should the Council be divided, and the issue be put to a vote, the decision will be made by simple majority. Even with the possible support of Portugal and Denmark – which are both "wobbling" – Blair cannot even dream of commanding a majority.

From there, there are two theoretical responses to the Council. Blair can defy it, effectively declaring war on the Union and taking the considerable opprobrium for being the one who destroyed the constitution. This would leave his European policy in tatters and consign him to the leper colony, making his forthcoming EU presidency a personal and political nightmare.

Alternatively, Blair could accept being over-ruled and come back to the UK with his tail between his legs, to tell Parliament that he has received his instructions from "Europe" and, like a good boy, he will have a referendum. Domestically, of course, that would be political suicide.

Thus, neither of these scenarios can happen. What Blair will do is manoeuvre and posture, testing the wind until he knows which way it is blowing, and then fall quickly into line so that he can maintain the pretence that he is still in charge. On that basis, there will be a fudge – there always is. There will be a token - i.e. meaningless - concession to Britain, such as the possibility of a short suspension, but the ratification process will go on.

What precise words will be used, heaven knows, and the precise order of events is impossible to predict at this stage, but the script has already been written and the die is cast.

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