Friday, June 24, 2005

Wishful thinking

"Blair vision for revitalised EU enthralls MEPs." So says the Financial Times, reporting on the EU parliament speech delivered yesterday by the Great Leader.

That is the skill of Blair. He can stand up and deliver a string of utter banalities, with such obvious conviction and passion that, when watching and hearing him, it is impossible not to be impressed. But, like the conjurer on the stage, it is all sleight of hand. Once you deconstruct what he says, applying cold, hard analytical tools to it, you find that, in fact, he has said nothing.

What, for instance, does his stirring peroration actually mean? "In every crisis there is an opportunity," says Blair. "There is one here for Europe now, if we have the courage to take it." The first sentence is truly banal, a cliché so worn it has wheel marks down the centre. Fundamentally, it is meaningless.

And for his next trick: "there is an oppportunity for Europe now," he says. Opportunity for what, pray? Search the text with a fine toothcomb and you will not find anything by way of concrete – to use one of the colleagues’ favourite words – proposals.

For sure, the FT eulogises over Blair's "vision of a revitalised European Union" that could "embrace free markets and face up to the challenges of globalisation." But, again, what exactly does that mean? What does it take to "embrace free markets"? What, in EU terms, is a free market? How exactly does Mr Blair aim to extend this embrace? Search for the detail and you will search in vain.

Equally, for the EU to "face up to challenges of globalisation" is all fine and dandy, but I wish someone could actually define what is meant by globalisation. What it means to José Bové, I suspect, is something very different from what Blair means by it, and while both would wish to "face up" to whatever it is, it is a fair assumption that their precriptions are very, very different. Search for Mr Blair's prescription and you will search in vain.

One can ignore for the moment Schröder, who is claiming that Blair wants to dismantle the EU. This is a (political) dead man tallking. But what do we make of Blair's calls for "deep economic reforms" to save the continent's social model? Many respected economists argue that it is precisely the social model that is the cause of its economic malaise but, even if we allowed for the prime minister's fabled "third way" – whatever it is – how does he propose that the reforms are implemented? Search for the detail and you will search in vain.

So, we come down to Blair telling us that, in his time as prime minister, he has found that the hard part is not taking the decision, "it is spotting when it has to be taken. This is such a moment of decision for Europe." Yes, fine – he has spotted that a decision must be taken. But what decision(s)? Search for the detail and you will search in vain.

It would be helpful, of course, if any one mainstream newspaper could exercise its critical faculties and do a proper analysis of the speech, but do not hold your breath. Take The Times, for instance. There is something touching in the child-like naïvity of its leader, which proclaims that "the babble of EU voices is a remarkable opportunity".

"It will be no small task," the paper intones, "to fashion a new Europe out of nation states which are starting to break free of the European Union's dead hand and assert themselves. But the Prime Minister is right to relish the challenge." It then goes on:

It was almost inevitable that the rigid structure imposed by accumulated rules since the Treaty of Rome would eventually fracture under the weight of economic recession and political compromise stretched too far by the requirements of “ever-closer Union”. It is Mr Blair's good fortune that this has happened when Britain is about to ascend to the EU presidency.
Please, dear readers, tell me I am not on the same planet as the Times leader writer. Which nation states are starting to break free of the EU's dead hand? Where is the evidence that the "rigid structure imposed by accumulated rules" is even beginning to fracture? – apart, of course, from the growth and stability pact, but that is rather a special case, to which the Times does not appear to be referring.

But, given these wonderous events, The Times thinks Blair has sensed that a new legacy is within his grasp. He has an unparalleled opportunity to define a new direction, and must stick to his guns. He has "democracy on his side" but he should become even more specific about what powers should be returned to nation states.

Even more specific? Let us look at exactly what he did say:

If we set out that clear direction, if we then combined it with the Commission - as this one under Jose Manuel Barroso's leadership is fully capable of doing - that is prepared to send back some of the unnecessary regulation, peel back some of the bureaucracy and become a champion of a global, outward-looking, competitive Europe - then it will not be hard to capture the imagination and support of the people of Europe.
That is specific? He is not actually – contrary to what Nigel Farge evidently thought – proposing to return powers to the nation states. He is simply inviting Barroso to undertake a mild form of deregulation. Was not that the main objective of the Dutch presidency? Have we been aware of any significant reduction in EU regulation – or any? Blair can invite. The Commission – as Farage said on Newsnight yesterday evening, can decline. And it will.

Nevertheless, says The Times, "there is clearly an opportunity to stitch together a new European alliance based on equality and opportunity. A freer Europe would unleash energy on a scale that could transform the prospects of every citizen: a fine legacy indeed."

One could weep with frustration. This isn't comment – not, at least adult comment. It is simpering, simplistic, facile wishful thinking.

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