There is much discussion amongst our continental brethren about just what to do with the aborted EU constitution. Some suggest simply ratifying the thing anyway, despite the French and Dutch “no” votes; others propose cutting bits and trying again; others still that bits of it should be introduced gradually (so that no one really notices); yet others that we should start again from scratch.
Yesterday, however, one of the most bizarre suggestions I’ve yet heard was put forward by Italy’s Interior Minister Giuliano Amato (who has his own ideas about the constitution). Speaking at the London School of Economics, he suggested that one of the reasons why the EU’s constitutional question may not be solved this year is “the British transition, because the British prime minister on that occasion might meet some difficulty committing his country for the future”.
In other words, Amato seems to think that it’s because Blair won’t be PM much longer that Britain is not participating in any meaningful way in any of the talks about the constitution, and that the British government has been remarkably silent about the future of the EU ever since Blair’s dismally ineffectual EU presidency back in 2005.
Newsflash to our continental cousins: if/when Brown becomes PM, nothing’s going to change. Ditto with Cameron.
Britain’s current attitude towards EU reform is that of the proverbial ostrich – head in the sand, hoping desperately that the problem will go away. There is not a single British politician within spitting distance of becoming Prime Minister who is going to risk opening that particular can of worms again, and risk being lambasted simultaneously by the largely eurosceptic British public for being actively involved in shaping the future of the EU and by their more pro-EU continental political peers for not being enthusiastic enough.
The only certainty in British politics is this: no matter what involvement any UK politician attempts to have in discussions about the future of the EU, they are going to end up getting burned.
Likewise, the future of the EU is uncertain at the moment, except for one thing: Britain will have no part in proposing new directions – the best she will do is block ambitious new proposals.
As in the 1950s when we missed out on participating properly in the talks that lead to the European Coal and Steel Community and the subsequent EEC, the UK is missing out on shaping the EU through a near-contradictory combination of insularity and over-confidence about her ability to maintain a position on the world stage. With Blair busy focussing his attention on Iraq, Afghanistan, saving the world through some kind of environmental revolution (no doubt backed by a pop concert organised by Bono) and how the hell he’s going to pay all his many mortgages on leaving office, he has no time for Brussels – and neither Brown nor Cameron appear to have much interest in Brussels anyway.
It is not the fact that Blair will soon be leaving office that prevents him from committing Britain to a firm position on EU reform: it’s that he can’t be arsed to make a decision that’s bound to end in criticism – the standard position of Britain ever since John Major hit on the genius cop-out idea of “wait and see” a decade ago. (Warning – barking right-wing anti-EU madness likely in that last link)
If that leads to the collapse of the EU, as some fear, Britain will simply sit back and wait once more to see how the collapse pans out. If it turns into a multi-speed EU (again, as some fear and as I hope), then there won’t be many on this side of the Channel who will be overly upset – it would, after all, instantly solve all the EU-related electoral problems that British politicians have been trying to cope with ever since we joined.
Britain’s EU “wait and see” is likely to continue for quite some time – it’s simply too risky for any major British politician to take any other approach. Yes, this will piss off many on the continent, but they should know it by now – after the Common Agricultural Policy, the UK is the millstone round the EU’s neck. With too large a population and too strong an economy to ignore, but never an enthusiastic participant, the UK’s like the fat bully at a child’s birthday party, standing sullenly in the corner refusing to take part in any of the games, and ruining the fun for everyone by occasionally rushing in to punch one of the other kids on the arm or steal their cake. The EU would be far better off without us – but, as with the bully at the birthday party, no one’s quite got the guts to tell us to bugger off.