Thursday, September 11, 2003
A Trend? - 11th September 2003, 22.29

In the Prime Minister's Questions on Wednesday, Blair may have realised that the issue of a referendum on the 'European Constitution' was exercising Parliament. Blair found himself stating four times that a referendum was not required because a new Constitution "would not cause fundamental changes in the EU".

William Pfaff of the International Herald Tribune has written a piece on how the European project is still sorely misunderstood by Britain, the United States and even more so, by himself. The Europhiles in Britain parrot mantras over EU membership but still justify integration in terms of the domestic political debate: economic and social benefits that will result in the safeguarding and increase of Britain's living standards.

However, the EU debate in continental Europe now appears divorced from the mainstream political arguments concerning economic growth, immigration and quality of life that form the fodder of continental elections. As Pfaff describes,

Europe is beyond ideologies now and, in a certain respect, beyond politics, even though the whole European project is intensely political in detail. The striking thing about its politics is that the debates function within an intellectual - and again, moral - perimeter that no one is prepared to rupture. Everything can be negotiated. Everything must be negotiated.

By placing Europe within a moral continuum, many supporters of integration and a unitary European state place the end above the means that has safeguarded Europe from war since 1945: liberal democracy. Whilst the thrust of this argument may prove attractive to dazzled witnesses like Pfaff, the sense of historical mission and Whiggish inevitability overrides tiresome politics with its requirement of public consent. This does explain one puzzling anomaly of the continental debate - the willingness of politicians to override the central values of their democracies. The missionaries are motivated by a greater mission, and like the nineteenth century liberals that they emulate, argue that the democratic values that they cherish will be realised in the European project. In the 'Springtime of the Peoples', did not a similar argument state that freedom would be achieved through the foundation of nations, individual values attained within a greater whole.

The metanationalism of Europe is a reprise of an older argument and can fall prey to the same tensions that eventually drove liberalism and nationalism apart. The older 'civic nationalism' of the United Kingdom, already multinational in tone, fits uneasily within this structure. That is why the European Constitution may prove to be 1848 for the European Union rather than 1815. If the Constitution were to fail ratification:

The current Italian presidency of the EU is charged with resolving this problem. If it fails, the constitution will fail. In that case it seems all but certain that a two-speed European Union will result. The founding members - the original six at a minimum, or the current 15 (possibly excluding Britain) - will go forward in reinforced cooperation, leaving the others on Europe's outer ring.

It is in Britain's interests that the European Constitution is not ratified and that future negotiations over further integration are undertaken on the basis of 'variable geometry' rather than as a structured consensus.


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