Friday, April 30, 2004

"Il est vraiment regrettable, en effet, si l'on croit que la Grande-Bretagne doit occuper une place centrale dans la conduite de l'Europe, ce dont je suis intimement persuadé, que la question ait été présentée sous un jour aussi faux dans mon pays ces dernières années. Il est impossible de raisonner intelligemment quand le débat porte non pas sur les mérites de la Constitution envisagée, mais sur le fait de savoir s'il y a lieu de consulter le peuple à son sujet. C'est pourquoi j'ai jugé que le moment était venu de mettre cartes sur table - d'obliger les eurosceptiques et les proeuropéens à faire valoir leurs vues, et de demander au peuple de trancher."

I'd forgotten to mention anything about Blair's article in Le Monde on Wednesday. "It is impossible to reason intelligently when the debate is conducted not on the merits of the proposed Constitution, but on whether or not we should consult the people on the subject."

Considering the results of the You Gov poll released today (admittedly a not especially reliable polling organisation, if one believes Private Eye as I do) that 51% of the population would vote not to the proposed Constitution and about 75% (can't remember the precise figure off-hand) admit to not having any idea what it's all about, "the people" cannot be trusted to make an informed choice.

We need an enlightened despot to make these decisions for us. Unfortunately, we've got Tony Blair. Poor chap. He tries his best...

Speaking of the Tories, Duncan-Smith's replacement, good old Michael "Poll Tax" Howard, is launching the Tory manifesto today in preparation for the European elections (which, thanks to the ineptitude of Camden Council, I don't believe I will be eligable to vote in, which is nice).

According to the Guardian the basic points are as follows:

· Federalist countries given a green light to integrate, but others would not be compelled to join them

· Provision for a "red card" to allow a third of the EU's national parliaments to block European legislation that offends the "subsidiarity" rule

· EU commission should lose its sole right to initiate legislation

· The six month rotating presidency should be replaced with team presidencies of one year

· Make free trade the central objective of EU treaties

· Subject all EU proposals to cost assessment

· Defence cooperation must be under a Nato umbrella

Interestingly, all of this is very sensible. Apart from the fourth point, about the nature of the EU presidency, everything else is pretty much contained within the current draft of the proposed Constitution.

Howard's a clever man. Despite the way the press has been reporting it, and despite my post of a few days ago, the Tories are being very moderate on the issue, and choosing their words with expert precision. Eurosceptics can read into them a rejection of Europe full-stop if they like, but that's not what Howard's actually saying.

Howard wants to block the creation of "a country called Europe". He knows full well that this is not going to happen - at least, not within the next century or so. Even the most ardent eurofederalists have accepted that a "United States of Europe" is somewhat unrealistic, and even under the proposed majority voting of the draft constitution there would not be enough support for this within the EU.

Howard also pledged today that "The Conservatives are promising to the British people that we will hold a referendum on every future treaty agreed by the EU which transfers significant powers from Britain to Brussels."

The "significant powers" is the important bit here. Blair's original argument for not needing a referendum on the Constitution was that "significant powers" were not being transferred - and they wouldn't be. What constitutes a "significant power" anyway? The people who decide will be those in government at the time powers are going to be transferred.

If Howard was PM and another EU treaty came up, he hasn't pledged to hold a referendum no matter what (as some sections of the press are suggesting), but only if he thinks it's significant. He could quite happily do a John Major and sign up to another Maastricht in the face of overwhelming opposition from press and public alike, and not be breaking any pledges he has made today, simply by arguing that powers being transferred are not "significant".

He's not a barrister for nothing, that Howard. Still not enough to make me vote for them though...

Well, the EU's expanding tomorrow, so Tony Blair's done a fluff piece in The Times about how great it all is.

Blair's points are very valid: "The benefits are obvious, including a stable, united and free Europe. Enlargement heals the divisions of the Cold War and guarantees freedom and democracy in countries which for so long had neither.

"It creates an expanded market of 450 million consumers which will increase prosperity, trade, investment and jobs throughout the enlarged Europe. Britain's trade with the eight largest new members has already doubled within the past decade. I believe, too, that the accession tomorrow will be a catalyst for change within the EU, helping to give a new push to Britain's agenda and fresh impetus to priorities which are already in the ascendancy in Europe."

"We need a Europe ready to change to meet the challenges of globalisation — a Europe with a strong social dimension but not one with rules so rigid that it costs jobs rather than creates them. We need a Europe which can compete globally successfully and fairly, so we need to complete the single market and overhaul the Common Agricultural Policy so that it is better for farmers, consumers, the environment and the developing world."

Unfortunately, Blair's really not the best person to be fronting a pro-Europe campaign at the moment. Iain Duncan-Smith's old catchphrase at PMQ's is almost true now - "Nobody believes a word the Prime Minister says anymore."

Thursday, April 29, 2004

Today's "way to state the obvious" award goes to The Washington Post. According to the article, American politics are divided in a sharply bipartisan manner which will ensure that after the Presidential election a sizable chunk of the population will end up pissed off.

It's actually pretty interesting, despite this, and makes even clearer (should any further clarification be necessary) that if Bush gets a second term everyone in Europe - in fact, everyone in the world - will be well and truly screwed.

"Bush extols "entrepreneurs," insists on tax cutting and deregulation, and promotes drilling and logging... he professes a born-again faith and appeals to traditional norms on issues such as marriage and cloning... he disdains intellectual subtleties in favor of plain-spoken verities."

Kerry "embraces environmentalism, labor unionism and regulation... he emphasizes the complexities of issues and urges an internationalist foreign policy... he gives precedence to tolerance over tradition and dissent over conformity."

Toleration? Environmentalism? Internationalism? Understanding of complexities? - Disgusting pinko nonsense! We want God, big business, pollution, unilateralism and war!

The fact that some people genuinely think like that scares the living hell out of me...

Tuesday, April 27, 2004

I'd missed this. The Tories have gone mental again. For some reason I thought Michael Howard had more sense: "If the British people were to vote no, a Conservative Government would veto the Constitution: and we would not agree to any new Treaty which establishes a Constitution for the European Union."

Brilliant idea. Reject ANY constitution for the EU outright, for all time, no matter what any future proposals may say.

Everyone seems to have forgotten that the wording of the current draft has yet to be finalised.

It's just as well that there's still the wonderful principle in this country that no parliament is bound by what any previous one has done. Any and all decisions taken can be reversed at any point in the future via due parliamentary process. We can reject the constitution if and when the referendum takes place (and massively weaken our position within Europe in the process), but sign up later on.

Everyone also seems to have forgotten that the current draft of the Constitution actually provides guidelines for withdrawing from the EU, for withdrawing support for the constitution, and for rejoining once the mistake has been realised.

Just because the current draft of the Constitution isn't perfect doesn't mean that it'll never be something that can be acceptable to a majority of the population. It's only real problem is its length and complexity.

It might also be worth pointing out that the concept of a referendum to decide a specific political issue is even more un-British than is being closely involved in continental affairs. This country is a parliamentary democracy. there's a Genereal Election coming up in a year's time - THAT's when the British people should make their decision. If they want out of Europe, vote for the BNP, UKIP or Tories.

Roy Hattersley: "the campaign has to begin right away. One of the subsidiary advantages of holding a referendum is the pressure it puts on Blair to argue a positive case for Europe - a duty he has disastrously failed to perform for seven years."

The Guardian, Leader column: "It is nearly a week since Tony Blair called for battle to be joined on the European constitution. These are early days, but there is not much sign of anything of that kind actually happening yet."

"At the end of this very week, a new form of European Union will come into existence... the new EU can be seen as marking the fulfilment of the war aims of 1939: a secure and independent central Europe living at peace alongside a liberal Germany. By any standards, that makes this a great moment."

"This new EU will have to be governed according to new rules and new habits that reflect its size, its diversity and changing times. That is why there is a new constitution. That constitution is not yet another Brussels power-grab, as the anti-Europeans would like to pretend. It is, if anything a grab of power from, not by, Brussels. A watershed will be crossed this weekend, and it leads down towards a nation-state based union which is much closer to the kind of Europe with which most people in this country will be at ease. This is insufficiently understood and, in some cases, deliberately ignored."

Good God, I'm agreeing with Peter Mandelson about something!

Yes, in an article in the Guardian co-written with Alan Milburn and Stephen Byers (Milburn I kind of like for no good reason, Byers I also dislike), Mandelson has helped intelligently to analyse almost all that has been wrong with pro-European tactics in Britain.

This is, naturally, all in response to the Blair Referendum U-turn.

"The forces of anti-Europeanism have been allowed to get away with the most outrageous misrepresentation of the facts without being properly challenged." Damn straight they have - hence me setting this up over a year ago. (And then, like the rest of the pro-Europeans in this country, neglecting it utterly, assuming that there's no point as pro-European arguments are so patently sensible as to eventually convince everyone anyway.)

The only trouble is, the article is directed to "Labour pro-Europeans", not pro-Europeans from other parties (and let's face it, Labour will need a cross-party alliance to win this one). It also makes public doubts within the Yes Campaign that should probably have been kept behind closed doors. It makes the pro-European cause look in a state of abject disarray, and scared of a near-inevitable defeat. That'll only bolster the confidence of the Eurosceptics, and prompt even more lies and distortions about the nature of the EU.

Plus, of course, there's the problem that the article has been penned by two disgraced former ministers, Mandelson and Byers, whom nobody with any kind of political memory can possibly take seriously.

But nonetheless, perhaps through Milburn's influence, they make a lot of very salient points: "Of course, the European social model needs urgent modernisation and reform." Why don't the pro-Europeans admit this more often? If they did, it might convince some of the borderline Eurosceptics that we aren't all a bunch of Ted Heath idealists, dreaming of some kind of continental Utopia, but are actually astute enough to realise that the current set-up is nonsense, and needs urgent reform - hence the attempt to work out the Constitution in the first place. I mean, this is a bit long-winded, but it does the job:

"The case for Europe does not consist of some misty-eyed vision of European unity but a robust calculation of how we advance our national interest in the modern world, exploiting the economies of scale at our disposal, to the benefit of our businesses and trading potential, to create jobs and boost living standards - as well as maximising our protection and projecting our full continental strength in a world that is threatened by instability and lawlessness."

It's also hard to disagree with this one: "unless Europe gets its act together, the chances of America by itself sorting everything out are pretty near zero." A common European defence force and foreign policy would make a certain amount of sense. It also would have prevented Blair from committing us to invading Iraq despite a million-strong protest march through London last year, and despite the fact that no one sensible in this country wanted anything to do with it.

Unfortunately, at points the article descends to petty, inaccurate party rivalries: "the Conservative party is dominated by neo-liberal, Thatcherite ideologues whose world view is seen through a neo-con lens." What does that even mean? How can they be neo-liberal and neo-con at the same time?

The final paragraph is typical of politicians, in that it misses the broader picture: "Labour cannot afford to see Europe as of second-order importance. We cannot allow the anti-European press to win an anti-democratic triumph. The party's political future depends on it. We must unite behind the prime minister to achieve a historic victory."

This read as follows: "Britain cannot afford to see Europe as of second-order importance. We cannot allow the anti-European press to win an anti-democratic triumph. The country's political future depends on it. We must unite behind the prime minister to achieve a historic victory."

Much as it pains me, and much as I don't agree with everything in the Constitution in its current draft, we really do have to unite behind Blair on this one. Otherwise the whole European project could go to pot - and then where would we be? An isolated, rainy island, desperately running around after America for scraps of influence in a world that will have become too big for us. A fairly ignominious end for what was once the most powerful nation the world had ever seen...

Monday, April 26, 2004

Aaah! The Murdoch Press!

William Ree-Mogg (aka Baron Rees-Mogg, editor of the Times from 1961-81) has contributed a fantastically superstitious opinion piece about Tony Blair's "historic" U-turn.

Is this "historic" in the sense that it has demonstrated once and for all that the British people shouldn't trust their government (following the Labour manifesto promise not to introduce university tuition fees and the promise for "Education, Education, Education", before introducing tuition fees and then top up fees, then mindlessly altering the A-level system to make those exams even more meaningless)?

No, instead Rees-Mogg claims that April 20th - the date the U-Turn on the Referendum on the European Constitution was announced - has and will have historic resonance thanks to other events that fell on that day in history.

The argument runs like this: Charles I was executed on 30th January; 30th January was the date Hitler came to power. "That is a sinister pair of events." The event Rees-Mogg comes up with for 20th April is the French declaration of war on Austria in 1792. His interpretation of this event is its most benign - that it marked a period of immense change for Europe and Britain that can still be felt to this day. Not, in other words, that 20th April 1792 marked 23 years of death and destruction, and is thus hardly a date to celebrate. Rees-Mogg also fails to note the most famous thing to happen on an April 20th - the birth of Adolf Hitler in 1889.

"Perhaps," Rees-Mogg argues, "some future British government will make April 20 a national holiday in honour of Tony Blair?s great U-turn. It could be called a National Day of Independence... The decision... has altogether changed British politics, European politics and the future shape of the European Union."

Yes, Blair's decision has ensured that Britain will lose, probably forever, its chance of leading Europe from its heart. It has ruined all the efforts made by everyone who has tried to involve the UK more closely over the last forty years. When the Referendum takes place, and the British Public vote to reject the Constitution, it will be taken by the Eurosceptics as a sign that the UK should withdraw even further. It will constantly be brought up as "proof" that Britain wants nothing to do with the rest of Europe. It will isolate us within our own continent, and push us ever closer to the rambling right-wing behemoth that is the United States. Great. Well done, Tony.

As frequently happens with the Eurosceptics, Rees-Mogg uses the tactic of deliberately misconstruing the aims of the pro-Europeans: "Tony Blair often talks about Britain being at the heart of Europe; a glance at the map shows that we are not, and never have been." Very clever. By the same logic, Gibraltar belongs to Spain and the Falklands should be renamed the Maldives and given to Argentina - something tells me that most Eurosceptics would not be too happy about that... (This argument also ignores the many centuries during which the English monarch also claimed the title "King/Queen of France", and during which England ruled large swathes of France, but logic and historical awareness is never as important as sweeping statements, let's face it.)

By Rees-Mogg's own superstitious attempt to attribute greater significance to coincidences of dates, April 20th is hardly a particularly auspicious or promising one for Europe. 1792 sees two decades of war; 1889 sees the birth of one of history's greatest murderers; 2004 sees Tony Blair announce a referendum on the European Constitution, effectively ruling out Britain from closer involvement, and thus ending the prime hope of those who originally planned the European Economic Community following the Second World War that Britain would play a major role.

Rees-Mogg blunders on, making sense in some regards (as should surely only be expected by a former editor of what was, during his tenure, still one of the most respected newspapers in the world) but allowing unadulterated xenophobia to taint the heart of his analysis: "everything in politics has a price. In this case the price is one that people such as myself are not only willing but eager to pay: it is the collapse of Mr Blair's whole European policy. The referendum cannot be won; therefore the constitution cannot be ratified; therefore the proposed Franco-German bureaucratic integration of Europe will be repudiated by the one power in Europe strong enough to do so."

For "Franco-German bureaucratic integration of Europe", read "integration of Europe". "Bureaucracy" is always considered an evil, but is a necessary part of any political organisation, and the EU is not nearly so bad when it comes to this as is often made out - certainly if one considers how bloated is the bureaucracy of Whitehall. These days, closer European integration is being called for more by the smaller nations - the big three of France, Germany and Britain all have their doubts. France and Germany certainly are highly sceptical about closer integration - hence their continued flaunting of various EU financial agreements.

But to acknowledge that Britain is actually largely in agreement with her most powerful immediate neighbours would be to reject the on-going Eurosceptic myth that the EU is a) a French ploy to get us back for all those times we beat them in wars and stuff ; b) a German attempt to rebuild either the Holy Roman Empire or the Hitler's Reich ; c) a Catholic conspiracy to undo the Church of England. All patently nonsense, but all still believed by a lot of otherwise very intelligent people.

Well, I've neglected this one for a while. It has been over a year since I started it, planning to track my musings in the run-up to EU expansion and the finalisation of the EU Constitution.

The situation has changed a lot. The new member states are now going to join in four days, prompting tabloid tales of a mass of migrants piled up beyond the former iron curtain, desperately waiting to scrabble towards our bounteous benefits system.

However, most worryingly Tony Blair has made a spectacular U-turn by announcing that (despite everything he said before) there will new be a referendum on the Constitution.

Yep, that's right folks, the "Great British Public" will be entrusted with analysing the details of what is currently about 230 pages of dense legal bumf, and working out what it might mean for the country's long-term best interests.

The Murdoch press has already come out anti (so that's the most widely read tabloid and most widely read broadsheet already campaigning against).

Last time I checked, the Telegraph was being surprisingly sensible about the whole thing, but no matter what happens over its ownership in the next few months, it will likely go anti as well.

The Express (a vile rag) has just officially switched allegiance back to the Tories after 10 years supporting Labour and, thanks to recent reports of Richard Desmond's anti-German tirades last week, I think it's fairly obvious where that "news"paper's views on the Constitution are going to lie.

The Mail, let's face it, has never been a big fan of foreigners, and there's no reason for it to start now.

So, that leaves the Mirror, Guardian and Independent to fight the corner of the loosely pro-Europe camp - newspapers with a combined daily readership of less than that of the Sun alone.

The Constitution is as good as vetoed already. The "Yes" campaign is in severe trouble. Quite how Blair (or, for that matter, the Liberal Democrats, who are pro, yet have been demanding a referendum for months) reckons he can win this thing, I have no idea.

It will be an interesting time. Europe expanding; the constitution being finalised in June; US Presidential elections in November; British General election in approximately a year's time. I'll try and keep this updated. I'll also try and work out how to change my username - one of the primary reasons I didn't keep this thing up...

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