Monday, May 29, 2006

What a difference a year makes

A year ago today, with strong rumours of a "no" vote in the offing, we were waiting with bated breath to hear the outcome of the French referendum on the EU constitution.

That the vote, when it came, threw the "colleagues" into disarray is now history – even to this day they are struggling to come to terms with a defeat that was reinforced a few days later by the Dutch rejection of the constitution.

But, while we can take some comfort in this setback for the forces of darkness, the defeat, if anything, was more psychological than real. European integration proceeds apace – albeit at not quite the speed the "colleagues" would prefer – so nothing substantial has changed.

On the other hand, the "no" votes have proved a major reverse for the Eurosceptic movement, especially in Britain. From a time when interest in EU issues was building, when the UK Independence Party had an immediate goal, and where a number of "no" campaigns were setting up and obtaining significant funds, the impetus has virtually collapsed.

The movement has reverted to a low-grade war of attrition and, with no prospect of a referendum in sight, it has little in the way of an immediate objective, around which to rally the troops.

Perhaps more seriously – with the brief exception of the spat over the EU budget – the collapse of the constitution has legitimised a retreat from the subject by the mainstream media and, particularly, the main political parties. Certainly, the Conservative Party hierarchy must have heaved a sigh of relief at being spared a contest that could only have been highly divisive.

In a year, therefore, that could have been dominated by EU issues, we have instead seen that diminution of interest that has allowed the emergence of a new leader of the Conservative Party who is able to treat the issue with disdain, allowing the government itself to consign "Europe" to the margins.

Thus, while the "colleagues" were lamenting in Austria over the weekend that "Europe" was facing its "deepest crisis", they are perhaps being overly pessimistic. Shorn of its immediate rationale – the campaign for a "no" vote in the referendum – Euroscepticism is also undergoing its own crisis, which may be of greater magnitude than is confronting the integrationalists.

"Europe", at least, can survive the indifference of its "citizens", as long as it maintains the support of its political élites. It remains to be seen whether Euroscepticism can prove as enduring.


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