Paul Anderson finds Blair's timidity
over the Euro and misplaced reform proposals amount to a
shambles of a European policy.
ll the gossip around Westminster suggests that Labour is
on the verge of ruling out British membership of the single
European currency for the next parliament. On the principle
that in politics there is usually no smoke without at least
smouldering, it is worth taking the rumours seriously, if
only as indicating the wishful thinking of the Eurosceptics
in Labour's upper reaches. Who knows? By the time you read
this it could be policy.
First, though, the evidence of impending change, if you
can call it that. The most important thing that has emerged
in the past few weeks is the strength of hostility to the
euro in the Treasury. It's not that Gordon Brown has declared
publicly against joining the euro - but then his style has
never been to say what he means. Rather, it is that, thanks
to new books by Andrew Rawnsley and Geoffrey Robinson, more
details have emerged of the famous row in autumn 1997 that
followed the revelation by Brown's spin-doctor, Charlie Whelan,
that the Chancellor was going to rule out participation in
the euro for the duration of this parliament. Precisely who
said what to whom and who behaved like a complete shit can
be left to the squabbling principals and their interlocutors.
What is important is that Brown won the argument against stiff
opposition from the pro-euro camp (or, more accurately, those
who thought the issue should be kept open), led by Peter Mandelson.
Meanwhile, a long-brewing crisis in Britain in Europe has
come to a head.
BiE was originally set up by the European Movement and others
as a nominally cross-party outfit, backed by business and
pro-European unions, to campaign for joining the euro. But
it has consistently done the bidding of new Labour: even before
its launch last year it was persuaded by Tony Blair to tone
down its message so as to become a champion merely of British
membership of the European Union. Last month, BiE's high-ups
announced a de facto suspension of activities until after
the next election - to the consternation of ordinary supporters
but with the backing of Peter Mandelson (funny how the same
names keep cropping up).
Almost simultaneously, Tony Blair announced that he would
vote no to euro membership if a referendum were held right
now - and with that, the newspapers filled up with mysteriously
sourced speculation that, because Philip Gould's focus groups
were so unsympathetic, Brown was adamant that euro membership
was not on and Alastair Campbell, John Prescott and other
supported him, Blair had been persuaded to match the Tories'
promise of staying out of the single currency until the election
What is clear, however, is that, even if Labour does not
rule out euro membership for the next parliament, it will
almost certainly make little effort to persuade the sceptical
British public of the case for the single currency between
now and the election - which makes a referendum on the euro
early in the next parliament somewhat unlikely. And this in
turn makes it more likely that the referendum won't take place
at all before the election after next, regardless of what
is in the Labour manifesto.
Whatever transpires, it is hardly surprising that other
EU governments are becoming increasingly dismissive of Labour's
protestations that it wants to play a constructive role at
the heart of Europe - and their mood has not been improved
by Blair's much-hyped speech in Warsaw last month on institutional
reform of the EU to cope with enlargement.
Billed as the British contribution to the great debate inaugurated
in the spring by German foreign minister Joschka Fischer and
French president Jacques Chirac, Blair's speech made some
important points about the EU's urgent need for greater transparency
and democratic accountability. But his proposed solutions
leave a lot to be desired.
Blair put forward three key reforms: a greater role for
the Council of Ministers; a reduced role for the European
Commission; and a second chamber for the European Parliament
drawn from the membership of national parliaments to keep
the existing directly elected chamber in check. In essence,
his argument is that the supranational institutions of the
EU should yield power and influence to intergovernmental institutions,
on the grounds that national governments enjoy popular legitimacy
that the supranational European institutions do not.
The problems here are twofold. Firstly, at the centre of
Blair's proposals is a misidentification of the locus of the
EU's democratic deficit, which is not in the lack of popular
support for the Parliament but in the lack of accountability
to the Parliament of the Commission and, especially, in the
secretiveness and horse-trading that characterises the intergovernmental
Council of Ministers - the very institution that Blair sees
as the EU's saviour. Only an increase in the powers of the
Parliament could really address this problem - yet this was
explicitly ruled out by Blair.
Secondly, although Blair's intergovernmentalism is viewed
sympathetically by the French, it is anathema to the Germans
and nearly everyone else - while his downplaying of the role
of the Commission is anathema to the French. So his vision
is not merely wrong in principle but poor Realpolitik that
is unlikely to have any impact on events.
It is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Labour's European
policy is a shambles - but then it was always likely to become
one from the point at which the party's leaders decided to
opt for a referendum on the euro in the run-up to the 1997
election. At the time nearly every pundit saw it as a political
masterstroke. But ever since it was decided not to hold it
at the height of the new government's popularity in 1997 it
has loomed ever-larger as a giant hostage to fortune. The
only way out would seem to be a massive campaign arguing the
benefits of the European social model against the Wild West
capitalism of the United States. But the chances of Blair
presiding over any such thing seem slim indeed.