A way out of the EU constitution problem?
With the French referendum vote too close to call, if you’re a pro-EU pessimist like me this is getting a tad too nerve-wracking. Given that Britain will almost certainly opt for a “No” vote in any referendum, the whole exercise of constitutional ratification also seems rather futile.
To turn Britain's vote around would have taken a long, sustained period of campaigning which simply hasn't yet materialised. Now there is too little time - especially as the campaign won't kick off until at least after Blair's managed to consolidate and work out his post-election position, and thanks to the European Parliament voting to overturn the UK's opt-out from the working time directive, looking like yet more Brussels meddling, if a referendum happens, Britain will vote no.
If Britain is the country that scuppers the EU's chances of advancing, it will be well nigh impossible to regain the trust of the other EU member states when it comes to matters of the Union. The constitution has already been watered down to become more acceptable to the UK, much to the chagrin of the French, and it would be pretty tricky to dilute it any further without making the bloody thing even more pointless and meaningless than it already is.
So, if Britain rejects a constitutional treaty seen in a number of quarters to be pandering to British Euroreluctance (which is, I reckon, a rather more accurate description of the prevailing attitude in the UK than Euroscepticism), it is going to be pretty damn difficult to get our voice seriously heard in any post-rejection negotiations for an alternative. The tendency on the continent will simply be to think "sod that - we've tried our best to keep the rosbeefs happy already, let's just ignore the reactionary bastards" and progress without us.
This could, actually, be the best thing for the EU. Dump Britain - we're shit, merely acting like a ball and chain around your proverbial ankle.
It would, however, as much as the more hardcore Eurosceptics in this country may celebrate, be a disaster for Britain. By sitting on the sidelines while the rest of the EU moves ahead, not only would we no longer be able to influence the future direction of the EU project (after all, why would you listen to the kid who doesn’t want to play while you’re charging around the playground with your mates?), but we would no longer be able to maintain that wonderfully privileged position we currently hold of being one of the big three of European politics while maintaining a modicum of distance.
It is Britain’s ability to be involved - but not too involved thanks to our avoiding joining the Eurozone - at the heart of the EU which attracts non-European powers to us as a broker. Yes, us speaking the same language as America helps, but does anyone really think it is just a coincidence that the closest relationships the UK and US have shared in the post-war period have been since Britain joined the European Community?
Up until the early 1970s, the US refused to give us long range nukes, buggered up our chances at Suez, and repeatedly neglected to inform us of its Cold War plans. They were a rival as much as a friend - but a rival with far more power and against whom we had absolutely no leverage. After joining the EEC, Britain finally had something to offer - a subtle means of communication and influence with Brussels and the western European states, most of whom - at the time - resented the presence of US troops on their soil and the fact that it would be their homelands which would see the brunt of the damage in any hot war that grew out of America’s standoff with the USSR. Today, the US wants (though still doesn’t need) European support on the international stage - and Britain is its ambassador.
This position would be impossible to maintain if we are no longer close to the centre of EU power which, no matter how much anti-EU voices may claim we have little ability to influence anything in Brussels, at the moment we - along with France and Germany - most certainly are.
I am not claiming that if Britain fails to ratify the EU constitution there will be an instant implosion. In fact, there will be bugger all in terms of immediate change to our situation. But those EU countries which wanted to push ahead will resent what would effectively have amounted to a veto on their chosen direction from the British people. The attitude will be, if Britain is the only country to vote against, “fine - they don’t want to join in, they don’t want to move forward, so we’ll press on without them.” This won’t be immediate. It will take a few years, as the constitution is redrafted and renegotiated. But it will come. Britain is already seen as a reluctant partner - rejection of the constitution will tip this feeling over the edge into outright resentment.
The best outcome, if you take this pessimistic view of the constitution’s chances, is for any country OTHER than Britain to vote “No”. France would be an ideal choice, as the resentment would then be focused on to her - and there has been a lot of resentment of the French within the EU ever since Paris managed to negotiate various preferential terms for French exports and industry in the Treaty of Rome. France has continued to hold an influence in excess of her size or economic might ever since the 1950s, and a French “Non” would simply make this even clearer to the other EU member states. They would see France as voting against to maintain her own power, not for the good of the Union - and in subsequent renegotiations, France would find herself with too much resentment and opposition to get her way, just as would Britain.
But there is promise of a better candidate to both halt the constitution AND prevent acrimonious post-rejection squabbling. The "No" camp in Holland is currently leading in the polls with 60% - compared to just 21% for the "Yes" camp. That's even worse than in Britain - and the Dutch referendum is less than three weeks away, on June 1st.
While the Netherlands may be small, it was one of the original six, so its reservations really couldn't be ignored. There is far less history of anti-EU troublemaking there than in Britain, and Holland has less to lose than France from the constitution's attempts to bring greater equality to the EU.
If Holland rejects, then the thing would actually be able to be reassessed in a rational, non-confrontational manner. It may be possible to finally take our time over this thing, and produce a blueprint for future change within the EU which is not only better, but clearer than the rambling vagaries of the current document. And, of course, Britain would not get the blame - which really should be the biggest consideration for anyone in the UK’s pro-EU camp.
If Britain is seen to bugger up the rest of Europe's chances, the anger and irritation towards us will be even greater than that experienced by us towards the EU this week when we got told we had lost one of our opt outs. If Holland does it, the surprise will be such that genuine reassessment will be possible. Fingers crossed for June 1st...