Tuesday, June 14, 2005

A tad unpredictable

It does seem as if the "Eurosceptic" press are making the running today, if one can allow that The Times is vaguely in that camp.

Thus, alongside The Times, we also see The Telegraph writing an obituary on the consitution, with the headline, "France buries the EU constitution", while The Guardian still focuses on the rebate battle, The Independent is not worth reading and, unusually, The Financial Times doesn't seem to know whether it is coming or going.

Thus, it is The Telegraph that has France performing "a historic about-turn", and abandoning the European Union constitution to its fate, dropping demands that other nations ratify the treaty.

The unexpected move, writes David Rennie, appeared to seal the constitution's doom, even if its most passionate supporters still refuse to accept its demise for several months more. Days before a crisis EU summit, Philippe Douste-Blazy, the French foreign minister, simply waived Paris's insistence that the treaty still be put to the vote, country by country.

With amazing chutzpah – just how do these Frogs get away with it? – he had the Gaul (pun intended) to declare: "Our humble and modest position says we simply respect the position of each member state." "Humble and modest"?

Douste-Blazy added that it was not up to France to "dictate" how others should proceed (a first time for everything, I suppose), but then raised the stakes in the battle over the EU budget by accusing Britain of selfishly refusing to pay the bill for enlargement last year, when 10 nations joined the EU.

But, behind closed doors, it seems that "senior French officials" have thrown in the towel and "quietly agreed with British predictions that an EU summit this week would leave individual member states to decide how, or whether, to vote on the constitution, with no deadline or timetable."

Picking up on the agency copy, The Telegraph cites the unnamed EU official saying, "the whole thing is being kicked into some very long grass indeed… You could say it is effectively dead."

One "senior French official" is then cited, saying: "The heads of state prefer to avoid a debate on the timetable." An original deadline of November 2006 was now "a target date, a date on which we take stock," the official said. Jack Straw is now saying that France would be asked to make clear at the European Council on Thursday "how they intend to proceed".

Nevertheless, it is still anticipated that the final text of the communiqué that emerges from the European Council on Friday (or even Saturday if it runs into injury time) is unlikely explicitly to declare the constitution dead. Many are pushing for a "freeze" or a "pause for reflection" in the hope of resurrecting the treaty later.

Another unnamed EU official said: "No one is ready to kill this thing off, but an open-ended deadline is a tacit admission that this thing is in serious difficulties. That might be combined with a freeze."

The Times, in an additional story, is saying that the political turmoil engulfing the EU is threatening almost the entire scope of its activities including further enlargement, the future of agricultural and regional subsidies, and the pace of political integration.

Foreign ministers, it says, have all but abandoned hope of reaching agreement on the budget, Turkey's membership talks may be put on hold and French ministers are again touting plans for an "inner core" - always a sign that things are amiss.

However, while Danish foreign minister Per Stig Moeller yesterday suggesting that his country's referendum may be called off, The Irish Times has published a poll suggesting that the majority of Irish voters believe a referendum should go ahead, by a factor of 45 to 34 percent believe, with 21 percent not expressing an opinion.

Should the referendum proceed, though, like British voters, the real intention is to give the constitution a kicking. Some 35 percent would vote to reject ot 30 percent would accept it, while 35 per cent don't know or have no opinion.

Bertie Ahern, fresh from his victory of having Gaelic accepted as an official community language, is running against the tide, wanting any decision by the European Council on how to proceed with ratification of the EU constitution to be binding on all member states.

His minister for foreign affairs, Dermot Ahern, said that once a decision was made, member states should not be free to decide whether to ratify the constitution or not. "I think that's the way the EU should proceed on this, on the basis of consensus, particularly in view of the fact that this is something that has to be decided by unanimity," he said.

To describe the current situation as murky, therefore, is something of an understatement. Blair has met Juncker this morning and had formally rejected his proposal to freeze Britain's rebate and is now meeting Chirac. One assumes that the guard of honour at the Elysée Palace will have unloaded rifles. Everything else is a tad unpredictable.

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