June 19, 2005

Love thy neighbour (unless he's french or british) EU Summit: Where to now?

So, there has been a lot of rumbling and the inevitable argument at the six monthly circus that is the European Council summit held in Brusssels. The added conflict and predictable fight over money has led to that single most predictable conflict in Europe; Britain v France (or should that be Blair v Chirac?). Poignant timing with the anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Who said that the European project was there to create harmony, co operation, agreement and prosperity in Europe? The events of the past few days and weeks would suggest that whoever said this needs their heads examining. The french talk of a need of 'solidarity', 'compromise' and a need for agreement on the budget and compromise on the part of member states to get an agreement in order to prevent a 1970's period of 'eurosclerosis', where the idea of integration was put on the back burner. In the end when national prestige and the personal egos of the leaders are on the line, the idea of being a 'good European' can quickly be forgotten.

The problem, I think depends upon one's definition of 'compromise.' It ain't a one way street, Monsieur le President nor for that matter my own Prime Minister. Calling for Blair to scrap or even to freeze the rebate was totally counter productive and a thinly veiled attempt, acknowledged by most as a way from diverting attention from the French rejection of the European Constitution. Yes, the rebate is a contentious issue. But by refusing to give something back, such as wholesale reform of the EU's finances which by the way is supported by Holland and Sweden who have called for a smaller or no increases in the overall EU bedget as a percentage of overall GDP, what Chirac has done is make a difficult problem an intractable one. Understandably Blair won't give up the rebate because to do so would be political suicide and ditto for Chirac to act on CAP due to the political significance of the farmers in France.

I even predict that, enboldened by the fact that Chirac is seen as the one who lost a referendum and not himself as had been widely predicted, Blair may even dust down that hanbag of Mrs T and try to drive hard bargains in future negotiations. To the best of my knowledge, France doesn't want to scrap the European Parliament building in Strasbourg. The reason self interest and national prestige of having an important body in your own country. Surely it would make sense to keep the European Parliament pernamently in Brussels. Yet this is supposedly the same self interest that led to Chirac calling Blair 'pathetic' for fighting for his national interest in maintaining the rebate.

As pointed out by The Times, if Angela Merkel replaces Schroeder as the German Chancellor it is possible that the Franco-German 'motor' of integration may well grind to a stuttering stop and may even stall, especially if it is agreed to drop rather than freeze the perhaps now defunct European Constitution. To the best of my knowledge, Merkel also came out in favour of the British position of wishing to tie negotiation of the rebate (or the cheque brittanique) to possible renegotiation and reform of the much maligned CAP as well as other issues in the budget that has not been signed off for 5 YEARS due to discrepencies in it. So much so, that Scroeder accused her of undermining him.

Pots calling kettles black don't you think. I mean it was Schroeder and Chirac who together forced onto the rest of the EU the current agreement of CAP funding until 2013 in 2003. It seems that the President and Chancellor are upset that they are now unable to dominate the agenda in European Summits as had been in the past. In the past they would agree as a pair would the agreed stance was and then use their strength to force it onto everyone else.

Ironically, the dream of the federalists for a federal, political entity of Europe may have been undone in part by them. The constitution was a chance to bring the EU closer to the citizens and yet it was rejected and further integration is much more difficult to countenance a result. It was this inability of the political elite to connect with the average EU citizen that has made it difficult to propogate popular enthusiasm for the EU. The average citizen I would argue wouldn't give two hoots about future integration and the idea of a European 'project' if they are without a job and unlikely to be able to get one. By talking so extensively in grandiose terms instead of at least debating how to deal with globalisation and its effects on how to create jobs the political elite was seen to be out of touch and it was this diseffection, that in part made it difficult to get support for the Constitution. The fact that President Chirac admitted in front of a televised youth audience of not being able to understand their concerns and the root causes of them clearly demonstrates the problems that the idea of a Europe faces.

I think that the only way forward will come when Schroeder most likely is to be defeated in September, assuming the German election actually gets the go ahead of course. That's not to say Merkel would agree with Blair on important issues. She won't as opposition to enlargement and particularly membership of Turkey would go to show. Future storms could be ahead, especially as the British Presidency of the EU will focus on enlargement and as well as the mess of the failure to agree to the budget and other issues that may pit Blair and the newer members against Chirac and his allies such trade liberalisation and the umpteenth attempt to implement the Lisbon accords of 2000 in order to make the EU more competitive in global markets. The trouble will lie in France and Germany amongst others wishing to maintain their 'social model' which would have to come under threat from any implementation of these arguably necessary reforms.Also, it must be pointed out that the UK position on maintaining the budget as it is doesn't have much support, if any in the EU.

So, where to now? These are worrying times indeed for those who believe that the EU should be made to work for the benefit of Europe and the wider world. As Jean Claude Juncker, the Luxembourg currently the EU President said, the fact that he was ashamed to hear the newer poorer member states offer to forgo some of their money in order to ensure a deal was made states how acrimonious things have got. As can be seen, the trouble lies in two parts; how big the cake should be and how big each members' slice of it should be. It seems that the battle lines are now once again being set in the ground between the two competing visions of the EU.

On one side you have the UK and most of the support of the newer members whose experience under state communist planning made them believe that over regulation doesn't work and on the other, there are the champions of the social model who despise the Anglo-Saxon model as it threatens their social institutions despite the fact that it is the one that is currently working the best when judging it against economic performance. The solution seems to be a mixture of the two models, but as has been seen, the prospects for agreement and compromise look bleak, especially as the disagreements now seem to take a personal undertone darkening the mood at EU summits. I fear that things may continue or my even get worse before they even get better.

- One comment Not publicly viewable

  1. Peter Thomas

    Chirac noted a 'two tier' approach – that of a one size fits all work together federalist approach involving the UK's sacrifice of the rebate for the greater good of Europe and what the French see as a nationally orientated approach from Britain who want to be the exception to the rule by keeping the 1984 rebate. It is beyond belief that the French see this move by the Uk as uncohesive and anti-progressive when the UK remains the strongest modern economy having transformed to the liberal free market. France's refusal to cut agricultural subsidies shows that France believes the future of Europe to be one of agriculture and primary sector development aimed at continued limitations on African and third world imports in favour of domestic economic retardation. Liberalism is a stronger and more flexible form of capitalism if controlled properly as proved by Britain. Chirac undenighably has dropped a bolloc politically and so you are right to point out the motivation for his excessive blame transferal.

    19 Jun 2005, 18:14

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