Richard North, 01/03/2005  

Straight out of the "non-news" department today comes a story in The Daily Telegraph which tells us that: "Plans have been drawn up to create an ad-hoc 'core' of countries determined to pursue closer integration, in case Britain rejects the draft treaty establishing a European constitution".

Under the headline: "EU diehards 'ready to gang up' on Britain", David Rennie reports that senior officials close to Schröder have told a leading pro-European think-tank, the Centre for European Reform (CER), that a scheme exists for a new, inner-circle of true believers, ready for unveiling the "day after" a British "no" vote.

The source is apparently Charles Grant, the CER director in a new pamphlet, "What happens if Britain votes no?". He cites "top officials" to predict that a British "no" would most probably lead to the creation of a "messy core" of pro-integration states.

They would, we are told, work on eight or nine chosen goals, such as merging their armed forces and embassies. France and Germany would lead the core, inviting Belgium, Luxembourg, and other pro-integration EU states to join them. A new "secretariat" would manage co-operation.

"We would start with an objective... then work out how to get there," a German official is said to have told Grant. "A decision to merge our armed forces could take a decade, like the creation of the euro. The key is political will."

According to this scenario, Britain would then become increasingly irrelevant, finding itself prey to ganging up by the inner core, increasingly forced to follow decisions in which it had little say.

Actually, this must come from Grant's "I wish" file. A more likely scenario is that the "core group" – or whatever they call themselves – will become increasingly irrelevant, witness the latest economic news from the EU commission which finds that economic confidence in the EU has slumped to its lowest level since last year's Madrid bomb attacks.

This detail is in the Commission's economic sentiment indices for February, released yesterday, suggesting that the unexpectedly sluggish growth experienced in continental Europe last year is continuing into 2005.

Confounding the Grant prognosis though, the UK and new EU member states stand out as bright spots. The countries showing the sharpest declines include Germany, Spain and Italy, just the countries which would be expected to form the core group. Furthermore, Germany's reversal was particularly dramatic - January's survey had shown sentiment in Europe's largest economy at its highest level for almost four years. In February it had returned to last summer's levels.

Not only that, but the contrast with the ten new members of the EU and the UK is extreme. Almost all of them reported improvements in economic sentiment. In the UK, February's economic sentiment index reached the highest level since December 1997, helped by a pick-up in the services sector.

Therein lies the central flaw in the Grant argument. Locked into the idea that "Europe" is progressive, and still believing the propaganda that expresses further integration in "positive" terms, such as to "go forward", suggesting that any country that does not follow is being "left behind".

Grant has yet to come to terms with the idea that if the car in which you were intending to travel is about to launch itself over the precipice, getting left behind is a jolly good thing.

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