15th Dec 2019


The EU presidency must be discussed ahead of the British general elections

This must surely be the only election the date of whose announcement has caused more speculation than the date of polling day itself. Indeed, the campaign has been running for some time, with political insult and general misinformation, not least about the European Union, in generous supply.

Nevertheless, dodging the obsequies for the Pope and the preparations for the Royal wedding, Tony Blair, finally confirmed that the General Election will take place on 5 May. That makes this therefore a good moment to consider the British Presidency of the European Union, due to start on 1 July.

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For it is my contention that should the British electorate decide to elect a Conservative Government in defiance of the opinion polls and the virtually unanimous view of political commentators, then the British Presidency could be in serious danger.

Possibly it might even have to be cancelled altogether. Not that this would necessarily worry Conservative voters in the exercise of their democratic choice, or for that matter the voters of other parties greatly either. Britons generally have a diffidence over what they see as waving the flag as the current tepid enthusiasm for London's Olympic bid tends to show.

State of flux

But it would matter to Europe and indeed to the opportunity for Britain to pursue its wider interests at a time when the Union is in a state of flux. Enlargement has not yet been consolidated, nor the Constitution ratified, while major environmental, economic and budgetary questions, including the vexatious British rebate, remain on the agenda.

Moreover, there are international affairs - the Middle East, Africa, the UN World Summit in September - in all of which the European Union will play a major role with Britain seeking to play a strong hand within it. The British Presidency, the first since the Spring of 1998, offers just this opportunity.

Under current constitutional arrangements each member state takes a six-monthly Presidential turn at the helm of the EU. Luxembourg holds the Presidency until the end of June, when Britain is scheduled to take over. Austria will succeed Britain on 1st January 2006.

The presiding country influences priorities, driving forward those policies it believes of particular importance. It chairs all meetings of EU Ministers, including the quarterly summits of European leaders. It is a major opportunity to provide leadership and one important area where leadership will be required is the ratification of the Constitutional treaty.

Now the current British Labour Government is pledged to hold a referendum on the treaty in the Spring of 2006. The date has not been settled: both March and May have been mentioned. The Conservatives like neither this delay, nor indeed the Constitutional treaty itself. If they win the General Election they have pledged to bring forward the referendum to October 2005 and to campaign for a 'no' vote.

The result of the British referendum has always been seen as touch and go, but probably winnable on the basis of a long campaign, positive results elsewhere on the Continent and a committed Government strongly in favour.

The likelihood of a positive vote in an early poll with a Conservative Government campaigning hard for a negative result seems, at best, unlikely. That anyway is what the Conservatives believe for they say they will use the result as a mandate to renegotiate key aspects of Britain's relationship with the European Union, reversing agreements in the immigration sphere, withdrawing from the Common Fisheries Policy and generally 'bringing back powers from Brussels.'

Not a country called Europe

Where this might lead was summed up by the Shadow Chancellor, Oliver Letwin, in comments reported in the Guardian on 8 March. 'I believe we can use the 'no' vote….to achieve our goal of being part of the outer ring of the EU that is not a country called Europe.' Nobody seems to know what would happen if these renegotiations fail: there is only Lady MacBeth-like certainty: 'We'll not fail!'

We must assume that these renegotiations, so widely flagged in advance, would be commenced shortly after the October referendum, in other words in the middle of the British Presidency. But this raises the interesting question with whom would a British Conservative Government negotiate? For if Mr Howard were to find himself Prime Minister after 5 May and Britain held the EU Presidency, Mr Howard would become President of the European Council on 1 July. He would therefore end up, in effect, negotiating with himself.

Clearly that is an impossible scenario. Logic suggests that Britain would need to pass on the Presidency, with its advantages, handing over the baton perhaps to the Austrians, though whether they would be in a position to accept it at such short notice is another matter. So far as I know the situation is unprecedented and worth a question to Mr Howard I would have thought.

All this supposes that French voters do not reject the Constitutional treaty in their own referendum on 29 May. In this case - and at the time of writing nine polls have shown the 'no' camp in front - the great constitutional project would be dead.

The resulting turbulence - in whose wake the British Presidency would squarely fall - would require a strong guiding hand acting in the overall European interest. Quite what any Conservative government might do in such a situation is perhaps another question that might be put to Mr Howard. At any rate it seems unlikely that he could then hold a British constitutional referendum.

If all this seems unlikely - the bookmakers are, after all, offering long odds on a Howard premiership - it is worth remembering that 'democracy occasionally democs,' to use George Brown's choice 1970 phrase. For in that election, thirty-five years ago, the Conservatives were again given little chance. Edward Heath then not only defied the early polls but proceeded to take Britain into what was then the European Economic Community.

Events later led him to call an-ill-judged election in 1974, won by Harold Wilson's Labour party. Wilson promised that he would renegotiate British membership and put the result to the people using the then novel idea of a referendum - largely a device to avoid the European fault line in his own party.

The poll, held in 1975 after a largely cosmetic renegotiation, resulted in a substantial cross party majority for Britain's European identity. Today the positions are reversed. It is the Conservatives that are offering to renegotiate the terms of European membership. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose.

The author is editor of EuropaWorld


The views expressed in this opinion piece are the author's, not those of EUobserver.

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