Conservative Home

« Quentin Davies MP: Why I voted against the inquiry | Main | Andrew Mitchell MP: Blair's missed tricks at the G8 »

Paul Stephenson: Blair seals off Brown’s escape route

Paul is a Researcher for Open Europe.  In the fourth instalment of a series on how the EU constitution is returning by stealth, he discusses Brown's awkward situation regarding the EU treaty.

Tempers are beginning to fray in the debate about the new version of the constitutional treaty.  EU politicians are getting frustrated that not everyone agrees with their plan to repackage the EU Constitution.

Italian President Giorgio Napolitano has ramped up the rhetoric, yesterday accusing opponents of the constitution of indulging in “psychological terrorism”. And as the temperature rises, so do the political risks for Gordon Brown.

According to the received wisdom, if a deal is set in train at the summit next week, Brown will have two equally unpleasant options.  He could veto the deal – upsetting powerful neighbours such as Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy in his first major EU outing; or he could sign up to the deal and attempt to face down British calls for a referendum – upsetting the 83% of his electorate who want a vote. 

But perhaps – in the words of Edmund Blackadder’s indomitable sidekick – Brown has “a cunning plan”. Jonathan Freedland recently wrote a clearly well-briefed column predicting that that we should expect Brown to indulge in “some trademark footwork to get this booted into the long grass”. 

Whereas Tony Blair just wanted to be loved in Europe, (recall his EU rebate sellout) Brown’s people wish the whole thing would go away.  And if it weren’t for the fact that Blair not Brown is going to the summit next week, they would have a great opportunity to put a great big clunking spanner in the works.

Despite intense pressure from Berlin, the Kaczynski twins (President and Prime Minister of Poland) are currently refusing to play ball.  Jaroslaw Kaczynski (the PM) said yesterday that it is "quite likely" that he will veto any proposal at next week’s summit unless there is agreement to reopen the negotiations on the voting system.  (The Polish Government’s slogan is currently “square root or death”, because they they want a voting system based on the square root of a country’s population. Don’t even ask...)

Kaczynski told Le Monde yesterday that, “Never, under no circumstances will we agree to what we have been proposed now and we feel the best solution for Europe is the square root system.  Everyone is hurrying us again. They are saying: 'Sign up now quick. The champagne is ready'. We want to calm things down.  Accepting the voting system prescribed by the current Constitution would be a capitulation.  A capitulation has never been a compromise.”

On their own, or with just the Czechs, the Poles may not be able to hold out.  The German government is quick to suggest that no agreement means no more EU money for Poland. Tony Blair has left the Poles and Czechs to twist in the wind.  But Brown might find it convenient to support the Poles and Czechs in order to stop a deal.

But the problem for Brown is that he’s not going to the summit. Blair desperately wants to secure some sort of legacy – and agreeing to a “historic” deal might, in his mind, do just that.  While the talk of Blair tying Brown’s hands is in one sense overblown – it will be Brown that eventually signs the treaty after all – Blair is going to deny Brown his one good chance to scupper the process without taking all the blame.

The Germans, who are in charge of the negotiations, are determined to get as much of the deal sown up as possible next week, particularly the contentious issues like the voting weights.  If, with Blair and Sarkozy’s help, they can squash Poland’s opposition next week, then the talks will be all but sewn up and Brown will lose his best chance to avoid the horrible constitutional conundrum.

Speak to Labour Special Advisors and it’s clear that they just want the whole issue to disappear.  Blair’s floundering position suggests that his visions of Europe has come to the end of the road.

As Blair’s former economic advisor Derek Scott argued in the FT last week: “one of the problems for the Blair government has been that in opposition Labour never worked out what being pro-European meant; it was simply part of rebranding and repositioning the party.” 

As Russell Holden has argued, being “pro-European” (whatever that means) was just a means to an end for Blair.  It gave him a stick with which to beat the Conservative Party, allowing him to look “modern” and “inclusive” while building relations with big businesses, who – at the time – were believed to be all in favour of joining the euro.

The main thought behind the Government’s approach was the idea of “influence in Europe”. Where the Major government had tried brinkmanship and been forced into a humiliating climbdown, (e.g. in the “beef war” of 1996) the new Government’s strategy was predicated on the idea that by “networking hard”, striking a new more conciliatory tone, and by being prepared to go with the flow to some extent - then the UK could build up a stock of “influence” which would enable it to shape the EU’s agenda.  Europe, we were assured, was going to “come Britain’s way”.

But if anything, reform in the EU has gone backwards.  We’ve now had 12 years without the accounts signed off, spending on the wasteful common agricultural policy has increased and Germany and France continue to thwart moves towards liberalisation.  In return Britain’s EU contributions have doubled while Blair has signed up to three EU treaties, all of which gave away substantial new powers to Brussels.

Blair is still ploughing on with this content free “pro-European” policy even though most Labour members don’t really believe in it.  So it is interesting to see that some of the parliamentary Labour party are starting to think again.

Frank Field and a number of MP’s on the left of the party have already argued that Brown should hold a referendum on the new constitutional treaty.  In a podcast on the Labour website the Deputy Leader candidate Jon Cruddas said that he had been in favour of a referendum on the European Constitution the first time round, and argued that it was not “pro-European” to just uncritically accept everything that Brussels does. 

In the 1980s it seemed to many people in the Labour movement that European integration was “the only game in town”.  But the EU’s agenda today is as unpalatable to many on the left as it is on the right.  Whether it is the EU’s disgraceful treatment of developing countries, its catastrophic failure on the environment, or its willingness to do deals with dodgy regimes like Uzbekistan, today’s EU is not easy to defend on the left. 

One way or another, the next few weeks will be a turning point for Britain’s relationship with the EU.  Does Brown have the courage to break with the fuzzy thinking of the Blair era, and force a rethink? Or will he go with the flow, and accept the poisonous political “legacy” which Blair seems determined to dump into his lap?

Related links: The first, second and third parts to this series


You must be logged in using Intense Debate, Wordpress, Twitter or Facebook to comment.