Richard North, 05/06/2005  

An ominous silence has descended over the outcome of the Chirac/Schröder talks held in Berlin last night. Although widely flagged up in advance, by midnight British time there had been no reports on its conclusions and the most recent EU story on Google News was over four hours old.

It goes almost without saying that what these two political "lame ducks" decide by way of their joint approach to the Dutch and French referendums will have a major impact on the coming European Council meeting of 16/17 June. The silence may be significant, as we usually get some clue of the "common position" fairly shortly after these Franco—German talks, by way of a joint communiqué.

Without any detail to hand, one of the crucial pieces of the jigsaw is missing, in trying to assess what is going on. However, from the responses and events of the last few days, some sort of a picture is beginning to emerge.

Firstly, it seems clear that Blair has seen in the Dutch "nee" and the French "non" an opportunity to ditch the UK referendum, which he believes he cannot win and which would be damaging to his premiership. However, equally clearly, it is evident that he does not want to be the first (or only) one to take action which would have the effect of ditching the constitution, and thus taking the sole blame for the collapse.

With his ministers and officials, he has therefore been working behind the scenes with the member states most likely to share his views, in an attempt to get a working (or sufficient) majority for the European Council meeting – safety in numbers, so to speak – which will support him in ditching the constitution, without the UK taking the blame.

In that context, the much heralded statement by Jack Straw on Monday, and the unattributed briefings by officials and allies of Blair, can be seen as pre-Council manoeuvring by Blair, to put pressure on his potential allies and opponents, in order to force a favourable (to him) decision on the Council.

Despite newspaper reports to the contrary, therefore, it is most unlikely that Straw will actually suspend indefinitely the UK referendum, although he may make the token gesture of suspending it until the Council meeting, in the hope that the decision will go his way, and he can make the suspension permanent.

On the other hand, the Commission, Juncker – holding the UK presidency – and, so far, France and Germany, have been trying to hold the line, insisting that the ratification procedure should continue, invoking Declaration 30 to support their case.

With what we know, it would appear that the Franco—German line will hold, unless the president and chancellor decide to cut their losses, although neither of them seem to have anything to lose by so doing. If the line does hold, it is unlikely that Blair can attract enough allies to form a majory. "Wobblers" will be whipped into line, and Blair will be facing a hostile majority intent on forcing the UK referendum.

Against this background can be seen the recent intensification of the rhetoric on Britain's budget rebate, which can be seen as a means of pressurising Blair. But it could also serve as a bargaining counter, with the prime minister being offered a "softer" settlement on the rebate, in return for a commitment to hold a referendum.

For the moment, though, precise analysis is difficult, although this Blog retains the position that Blair will almost certainly be forced to continue with a British referendum. As the situation develops, though, the balance of power could change, easing the pressure somewhat. We will continue to watch and wait.

And who said EU politics was boring?

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