Sunday, February 02, 2003
That Learning Curve - 2nd February 2003, 15.53

Last Friday, I enjoyed a stimulating talk by Helen Szamuely on 'How the EU works', at one of Brian Micklethwaite's discussions. Although the outline of the Union was already known to me, the innards of this infernal machine were clarified in certain areas. It certainly brought home to me the fact that the European Council (not the Council of Europe) agrees the guidelines (not framework) for the future direction of legislation in the EU. The European Council is the bi-annual meeting of prime ministers/presidents and, if an area of policy is agreed upon, this is passed to the European Commission for a detailed drafting of legislation and enters their sphere of competence, ie, it is no longer a focus of national legislation. Recent examples include vast swathes of the criminal justice system.

Now, with the stimulated emission of punditry over the debate of "New Europe" vs. "Old Europe", many commentators are running away with their own hopes and imagining that Blair will turn away from the basic precepts of his foreign policy: Atlanticist security and European integration. As Peter Hain's welcome to the Franco-German proposals recently indicated, Blair is not willing to undermine the goals of the Convention.

Among the areas Blair is willing to cede ground on are the extension of qualified majority voting in foreign policy, the election by MEPs of the European Commission President, the adoption of the Union's charter of fundamental rights (provided that it cannot be enforced in the UK courts) and the establishment of an EU diplomatic service for Member States without own embassies. However, Britain's envoy to the Convention, Peter Hain, said that defence issues would remain subject to unanimity and that areas eligible for majority voting would be closely defined.

In return, Mr Blair - who once even opposed the idea of a European Constitution - would expect Mr d'Estaign to agree to the British proposals to elect a full-time President for the European Council and to grant national parliaments the right to vet proposed EU legislation. Underlying Mr Blair's concessions is his ambition to secure the goal of a "Europe of sovereign states".

These represent a huge retreat from the remaining areas of genuine British sovereignty. With these moves, it is clear that Europe's thirst for integration does not sit comfortably with the need for many states in Europe to assert their particular stance on foreign policy: Atlanticist, neutral or anti-American.


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