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Europe: the square root of no

John Palmer
20 June 2007

With only twenty-four hours to go before the start of the crucial summit of European Union heads of state and government in Brussels on 21-22 June 2007 - intended to agree important reforms to the way the EU functions - the British government's Eurodiplomacy has assumed a truly bizarre character. Even diplomats and politicians in other EU capitals well seasoned in the arcane ways of European negotiations have rubbed their eyes in amazement at the contortions of British government emissaries as they perform u-turn and volte face manoeuvres on key features of a new EU reform treaty.

It should not be forgotten that the British government accepted the whole of the ill-fated EU constitutional treaty agreed and ratified in 2004. Tony Blair said it was "essential" if the EU was to face the new global challenges as well as manage an enlarged union of (now) twenty-seven member-states. Ministers expressed themselves satisfied at some important features of the proposed treaty - including a citizens' "charter of fundamental rights"; more collective decisions by majority vote on urgent cross-border issues such as migration and the fight against crime and terrorism; the appointment of a new EU foreign minister to give more effective expression to European foreign and security policy; and recognition of the right to a "legal personality" when negotiating international treaties.

Also in openDemocracy on the European Union in a decisive year:

Aurore Wanlin, "The European Union at fifty: a second life"
(15 March 2007)

Krzysztof Bobinski, "European unity: reality and myth"
(21 March 2007)

Frank Vibert, "The European Union in 2057" (22 March 2007)

George Schöpflin, "The European Union's troubled birthday"
(23 March 2007)

Mats Engström, "Europe's green power"
(26 March 2007)

Simon Berlaymont, "Tony Blair and Europe"
(30 May 2007)This treaty has had to be shelved. No less than eighteen member-states gave their approval - whether by referendum or parliamentary vote - but two, France and the Netherlands, rejected it. The agreement of all twenty-seven countries is required for it to come into force. However thanks to some hard work in Brussels and other European capitals (notably in Berlin, where Germany presently runs the EU presidency the outlines of a new treaty have emerged with overwhelming support across the union.

The new treaty abandons the languages and symbols of a "constitution" (which were always more apparent than real) but seeks to safeguard most of the essential, practical changes to the way the EU functions in order to allow it to function effectively in the modern world. It seems that this new, minimalist treaty will win the support of the French and the Dutch. The French will be promised a future, much needed, review of some basic questions about what kind of social-market economy should be developed over time in Europe. The Dutch will be promised increased powers for national parliaments to warn off the commission when there is widespread concern about a particular policy proposal.

A blocking minority

This then leaves only two major problem areas - Poland and Britain. The rightwing, populist Polish government run by the Kaczynski twins (Lech, the president and Jaroslaw, the prime minister) is deeply Eurosceptic in a country where the vast majority of the population is strongly pro-EU. But, driven by historic resentment against a Germany which no longer exists, Warsaw is trying to replace a system for relating the votes each state is given in relation to its population in the council of ministers, favoured by almost everyone else. The hope must be that the Polish "square root" system (which has merits) is left for review after 2010 and not deployed now to sabotage the treaty as a whole as part of the Kaczynski campaign against Germany.

All of this leaves the British government as the habitual joker in the pack. A Labour government in transition between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and panicked by the employers' corporate body, the Confederation of British Industry, now wants to deny the charter of fundamental rights any legal force - or to be exempted from its key provisions, especially on trade-union rights. It is not hard to imagine how this kind of double standard will go down in parts of the world where countries are preached at by British ministers about their attitude to democratic rights and the rule of law.

John Palmer is a member of the governing board of the European Policy CentreAlso by John Palmer in openDemocracy:

"After France: Europe's route from wreckage" (May 2005)

"The ‘nation'-state is not enough"
(December 2005)

"The levels of democracy"
(January 2006)

"Europe's enlargement problem"
(23 May 2006)

"Europe's foreign policy: saying ‘no' to the US?"
(12 September 2006)

"A Commonwealth for Europe"
(11 October 2006)

"Europe won't go away" (6 February 2007)

"Germany and Europe: the pull of unity"
(16 February 2007)

"From Berlin to Lisbon: the European Union back on the road"
(27 March 2007)London's other last-ditch attempts to denature the treaty are even more ludicrous. It wants to deny the European Union a legal personality - although it has been given such a personality many times in the past when negotiating international treaties. The United Kingdom seeks an opt-out from some future majority-vote EU decisions on the fight against crime, terrorism and "illegal migration" although British ministers have been loudest in their demands for "more effective" action by the union on all these issues.

Perhaps the most risible intervention was made by Britain's foreign secretary Margaret Beckett on 18 June when she insisted that any new European foreign minister could not merely be so described (which is unimportant) but should also be denied any effective staff or support mechanism of the kind the UK signed up for in the original treaty. For anyone who looks to the Labour government in future to support an EU foreign policy less cravenly dependent in future on the say-so of the United States (as most Europeans do) this is a most revealing intervention. It will also please the Washington neocons.

All of these manoeuvres are justified by ministers privately as being necessary to avoid a referendum in Britain on this new treaty. But there is nothing in the proposed treaty which changes Britain's existing constitutional arrangements and thus justifies a referendum. Rather the referendum issue is being deployed as an excuse to weaken and undermine the evolution of the EU itself. It took the French and Dutch "no" votes to provide them with a tailor-made excuse to do what they always wanted to do.

If there is a case for a referendum, why not have an EU-wide referendum with an agreed threshold of (say) 55% agreement for it to come into force? Is it really more "democratic" to have a situation where twenty-six states approve a treaty and one does not, but it cannot come into force? For those who insist on a United Kingdom referendum, what if the Scots and Welsh people vote "yes" by a majority? To ignore such a development might do more to trigger the kind of constitutional changes which would justify a referendum than anything in the proposed EU treaty.

The most disturbing aspect of all of this is the fact that the grotesque reversals being attempted by government ministers have gone virtually unnoticed by British politicians or the British media. When will British democrats wake up to the attempt to undermine the charter of fundamental rights in particular? This hypocrisy may go unremarked at home. It will not be ignored in the middle east and elsewhere.

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