Tuesday, December 23, 2003
A 'two-speed Europe' is bad for Britain

Jack Straw made an unpublicised speech in Ireland as part of the welcome that Britain was giving to the new President Member State of the European Union. After an aside reminiscing about Heath's treachery, Straw provided some insight into the government's view after the postponement of negotiations on the constitution.

Indeed according to Hugo Young [in This Blessed Plot], we have Ireland to thank for our ability to use English at the European negotiating table. Young says Edward Heath had instructed British officials to speak French when they took up their seats as new members in Brussels - a promise he had given to Pompidou during our accession negotiations. The Irish delegates, however, were bound by no such undertaking - and along with the Danes they made clear from the start that they wanted to speak English. In due course, the British representative felt it would be absurd for him not to do so as well; and soon English's equality with French was established.

Whilst Straw wished to give the impression that the European Union was business as usual, based upon the Enlargement process and the continued institutional arrangements settled at Nice, his speech included two alternate possibilities. Firstly, the Government wished to shore up its support for the Constitution and maintain the consensus crafted before December's debacle.

In formal terms, nothing in the new treaty will be agreed until everything is. But as Italian Prime Minister Berlusconi said at the end of our meetings last weekend, there are already some 82 points were consensus is close. Many are points which Britain worked hard to achieve: retaining unanimity for issues such as defence, tax, EU finance, social security and criminal law; changes on energy, civil procedural law and the so-called European foreign minister; and confirmation of the fact that any further treaty change will need to be subject to the approval of national parliaments. We are getting the right outcome in these debates by engaging with our partners rather than sulking on the sidelines.

As Jack Straw had already stated that this speech was rewritten following the failure (another rhetorical sop to the Constitutional Europhiles), his alternative support for variable geometry was the start of teh government's ideological support for alternative structures that increase the integration of Britain in the European Union.

Finally, there is going to be quite a lot of talk over the next few months of 'core' or 'two speed' Europe. On this I would make this comment. It is already the reality of Europe that there are different groups pursuing deeper cooperation in certain areas. Some countries are inside the Euro and some outside. Some countries are inside Schengen and some outside. Some countries are participating in European security and defence operations - in Macedonia and in the Congo - but not all. So groups, of varying membership, are already a feature of the EU.

Even though Straw recognised that Europe, as presently structured, is in economic and political decline, his answers were limited and unconvincing. Since this government is at the forefront of defence co-operation, the themes of variable geometry and a 'two-speed Europe', once so hopeful for Eurosceptics, are now the engines for the further integration of Britain in Europe through intergovernmental institutions.


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