Britain and the EU constitution

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.

  1. ” or steal their cake.”

    That’s not really a sensible analogy for a country with such a large net contribution.

    We’re the fat kid that no-one likes who gets pulled into events that we don’t want to go to so that we can be made to pay for the drinks whilst the cool kids laugh at us.

    ” the largely eurosceptic British public “

    Remind me about that democracy thing again?

  2. Jonn said:

    All very true. But one point I’m curious about:

    The EU would be far better off without us

    You really think? Why? First off, we’re hardly the only awkward one any more, nor are we the only Anglo economy.

    And secondly – if Britain was to live out its cherished dream of being towed to somewhere off the coast of Maine, what would the EU be doing differently that would be such an improvement?

  3. Cleanthes – not eurosceptic in the sense that they’d like to pull out, necessarily, just sceptical of further integration. And pretty much any and every change to the way the EU runs is pitched as further integration by the even more eurosceptic (or simply euroignorant) press, even when it isn’t.

    Jonn – there are certainly plenty of other awkward cases these days, that’s for sure, but if Britain gets uppity she can’t be ignored or placated as easily as some of the others. Every time the EU seems to be getting anywhere in terms of reform, in the last case it’s usually Britain that raises objections that either dilute the thing to near-meaninglessness or halt it altogether – as would certainly have happened with the constitution if we’d ever got around to having a referendum (cf. comments about the press and public above…). The EU is simply too contentious an issue for any government to risk being too involved with it, for fear of being accused of taking the country closer to joining the mythical federal superstate.

    As for what the EU would be doing differently if the UK wasn’t a member – not a lot, at the moment. It’d still be in a state of stalemate thanks to the French and Dutch votes, after all. But had the UK not been a member a few years back when the Convention on the Future of Europe was drawing up the constitution, then British objections would not have been there to water down the reforms. At least part of the reason for the French rejecting the thing was that it was “too Anglo-Saxon” – this wouldn’t have been the case without Britain’s (mostly negative) input, and it’s entirely possible that the constitution would have both been better and have been ratified by now, allowing the EU to run much more effectively.

  4. Nm,

    Anything on the “cake” bit?


  5. The cake bit? Go on then… Let’s stretch this even further:

    Britain’s like someone who turns up to the party with a really huuuge cake, hands it over, and then demands that they’re given the biggest slice, as it’s not fair that they’ve given such a large cake, even though it was their own decision to do so in the first place…

    How’s that?

  6. Jonn said:

    Hmmm. I’m not sure I’m comfortable with the idea that Britain is always in the wrong and the EU would be better off without us.

    I mean, yes, tabloid propaganda, John Redwood and all that. But Britain has pushed for some valuable reforms – most notably expansion, cutting the CAP and redirecting spending towards R&D.

    Yes, Blair failed miserably on most of those kind of aims, and I’m not really arguing with your suggestion that the domestic political situation makes it tough to get anything done.

    But nonetheless, to characterize Britain as the one country always in the way of EU reforms is a little… bizarre. France alone has done its fair share of party-fat-bullying.

  7. Lithcol said:

    The whole idea of Europe as a single cultural, political entity was bogus from its inception.
    We have enough problems with the UK as a single entity etc.
    France is a nice country to visit, but I wouldn’t want to live under their system of government. Newer countries, no way.
    We have our ways, they have theirs.
    Long live ours, and long live theirs.

  8. Katherine said:

    I don’t think there are many supporters of the EU who think of it as a tool to create a single cultural entity in Europe. Possibly political yes, at the extreme end, but not cultural. If there is one thing that all members of the EU are likely to get precious about, it’s their individual cultures.

  9. NM,

    So when you described the UK as the fat bully that steals other people’s cake, you were in fact really rather wide of the mark and it would be nice if you fessed up to that one.

    And no: it isn’t “our” choice: no-one under the age of 50 made this choice and the ones that are both over 50 and did make that choice were lied to in order to secure their consent.

    Our choice would be to hold onto our cake and not go the party at all. Because actually we have enough people at home for a party of our own.