Saturday, May 14, 2005

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...

10 Comments:

Blogger AlanK said...

Nosemonkey

Dont you find that it is a little hypocritical that if France or Netherlands rejects it, that there are genuine reasons.

While if UK rejects it, no reason except Euroskepticism nonsense

5/14/2005 05:27:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Sorry - I don't quite get what you mean.

5/14/2005 05:29:00 pm  
Blogger AlanK said...

Nosemonkey

I will rephrase it as bit unclear first time

I meant from the attitude of the EU to the problem, that if UK or a smaller country rejection is due to euroskeptisim not due to constitution itself and not worthy of rexaming why.

While if another country like France was to reject it, that it would be because of genuine reasons for them to say no rather than just being anti EU,

5/15/2005 12:47:00 am  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Sorry - I don't see how it's an issue. Each EU member state has a slightly different attitude towards the whole shebang, people are aware of those attitudes, so those attitudes will be considered responsible. Simple.

Or do you think that the prevailing feeling that Britain is anti-EU is unjustified? Do you think that all the people who are bitching about Brussels messing about in our lives have read the constitution text and so understand exactly how it is likely to affect our relationship with the rest of the EU? Or would you say it's more likely that they were already predisposed to oppose the thing before it was even announced, no matter what the content?

The press being dominated by Eurosceptic stances (with the Mail, Express, Times, Telegraph, Sun, News of the World, Scotsman, Star, Sport, Sky News and occasionally the Mirror all being anti-EU, as well as various local newspaper companies), it is hardly a surprise that people lean towards being anti in this country. It also explains why everyone's so ill-informed - approach a subject with definite bias from the outset, you will be unable to really understand it.

In a good number of the other EU member states the level of information and news about the EU is both much more readily available and considerably less biased, so the populations are generally better informed. This is why in France the debate has been over whether the constitution is pushing for a social or a capitalist Europe, and France's place within it - while in Britain it's all been the overly simplistic jingoistic crap about Brussels bureaucrats, federalism and so on, with some sections of the anti brigade trying to turn it into a referendum on EU membership itself. Which is hardly what the debate should actually be about - at least not at this stage.

5/15/2005 11:58:00 am  
Anonymous robin said...

Nosemonkey,
The BBC is pro EU and there are the websites.Plus people can be anti EU from experience.
I would have thought you RUrophiles would want people to be as ignorant as possible about the EU as the more is known about it the more it is resented.

5/15/2005 09:39:00 pm  
Blogger Nosemonkey said...

Robin - no, the BBC isn't pro-EU. You just think it is because you have your own little mental filter which conveniently forgets Jim Naughtie verbally assaulting Barroso for ten minutes on the Today Programme over the shambles of introducing his new commission, forgets the 20 minute segment on Newsnight last week showing just how much of a shambles the working time directive is, and utterly ignores all the other times the BBC is critical of the EU. Being fair but critical is the BBC's job - and that is precisely what it does. If you buy all the bullshit spouted about BBC bias, then it's biased against the Tories, Labour, the Lib Dems, UKIP, the BNP, Veritas, Respect and God knows who else. This isn't bias, robin old dear, it's called critical balance.

And what websites, precisely, are you talking about? And what reach do you seriously think they have in terms of mass communication? The internet, as a propaganda tool, is worse than useless. Those newspapers I mentioned alone include the two biggest selling tabloids and the two biggest selling broadsheets. They far outweigh any impact the BBC and the internet could have even if the BBC WAS biased in favour of the EU.

And actually there have been studies to suggest that the MORE people know about the EU, the more they are in favour - you'll find a link to them if you check the archives. Why else do you think the Commission wanted to set up EU information centres, and why else do you think the eurosceptics opposed them with their pathetic claims that they'd be spreading propaganda?

You are, as so often, spouting abject nonsense.

5/15/2005 10:20:00 pm  
Blogger FransGroenendijk said...

"If Holland rejects, then the thing would actually be able to be reassessed in a rational, non-confrontational manner."
I think this is true but not thanks to the rational attitude of the Dutch!
In the meantime I still think "The rapid changes in the global economy to me is enough to completely disagree with the idea of European integration going to fast. Yes it is going fast but the changes in the economy and ecology are faster. We can not politically pause here."
(Referendum on the EU *constitution*: not that important)

5/16/2005 12:27:00 am  
Blogger ken said...

I can see what Nosemonkey is saying, and he is only repeating the general view that is prevalent amongst the EU politicians, a rejection by Britian will be looked on as a British problem, and it will be up to us to come up with an answer to the British problem.

However which ever way you cut it this is discriminatory aginst Britain and the British people, why should the French or the Dutch EU citizens have the right to reject a constitution that they find unacceptable and not the British EU Citizens. Of course in law they do not, we do have an equal right to say sorry we do not accept this document, and in law there is nothing the others can do about it.

This is not though a legal issue, but only a political one, and because Britian is expected to say no, this is political manoeuvring in an attempt to sideline the expected no. But it really only has any relevance if our politicians fail to make the case that they signed the previous treaties on the clear understanding that they would have a veto on any changes. If they were to do so the EU would find itself in an impossible position, because the other states would have nowhere to go apart from leaving the present Union and setting up a new one and excluding Britain. This is the argument that is being suggested by some as a way forward if Britain does not ratify, if that were it to happen would cause several problems for those states, as in effect Britain would be the only state in the present EU.

None of this will happen, they will be forced to renegotiate no matter what they say now, if (and that is a very big if), Blair were to stick by the results of the referendum. I think I am right that the referendum is not binding on the government, so they could ignore the referendum and ratify anyway. But more likely they will come up with some reasons based on polling that supposedly suggests a reason for the no vote, and renegotiate around the edges, with opt outs and so on, then say we have taken on board the concerns of the people, we have answered the main sticking points, so we can go ahead and ratify.

But I tend to think that the main push behind this post is right, if either the French or the Dutch vote no this will lead to a general renegotiation with less anti-British feelings causing problems.

The only other point is that it does show the naivety of accepting anything our governments tell us about the treaties at face value, if a treaty requires 100% acceptance, then everybody should accept and respect that agreement. It is quite obvious that the intergrationalist in the EU see each agreement as a stepping stone from which to launch a further push forward, so in the end we will be faced with a simple choice in or out, as we can already see the outlines of the completed Union I think we should make that decision now.

5/16/2005 11:52:00 am  
Blogger Rousseau said...

Am I the only one who thinks Blair called for an election right before the EU const vote so he could just ratify it himself, with a maximum of "I have a mandate to do what I want" and a minimum of any consequences in the forseeable future?

Anyway, is it unfair for Britain to take more cost from voting no than others? Independently I guess. But this is all in context.

My college has ID cards. When you lose your ID card the first time, you get a second one free. But lose that one and it costs $20 to replace, and the third is $40 (after that it's just $40). Now if two roommates simultaneously lost their's on some boating trip, and one had to pay $0 and the other $40 it might seem arbitrary, but it's based on a rule and understanding, and certainly not particularly discriminating towards either roommate a priori.

5/16/2005 06:04:00 pm  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Nah, disagree. A Dutch Nee and a French Oui is the best possible result for UK sceptics. If the French vote No Blair will have an excuse to duck our plebiscite, but if only the Dutch vote No he'll have to go ahead (yet without the figleaf of pretending that if we vote No we'll be thrown out. What us AND the Dutch?). And when we have our vote we will vote just so enormously NO, that'll decide it for a generation. As a sceptic, therefore, I keenly want the Frogs to vote Yes. To my own surprise.

5/16/2005 11:16:00 pm  

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