Pity the poor Piris group, their partners and children.
These are the legal experts from each of the 27 EU countries who are being asked to do a most un-Brussels-ish thing and work through August. They will be fleshing out the new Reform Treaty so that it is ready for perusal by the European Union’s foreign ministers in early September.
Although I was still in Turkey at the time, as far as I can gather the unveiling of the intergovernmental conference earlier in the week was something of a damp squib.
Perhaps this was intentional. Although the Brits are the greatest worry, no-one in the European Union establishment has any interest in anyone trying to re-open arguments or question the smooth ratification of the treaty. Almost uniquely for a major document, it was made available only in French. The cunning blighters had failed to spot one thing: some of the Eurosceptics have been dashed clever and have actually gone and learnt the bally language.
In Britain, those opposed to a new treaty are doing their level best to keep it in the news, bobbing way beneath the surface of all that flood water. They want to garner support for their argument that the government’s case for the treaty is unravelling, and that it is pretty much the same as the old constitution.
The shadow foreign secretary William Hague has repeated his call for a referendum saying the government are out on a limb when they claim this is not the same as the constitution. Labour MEP Richard Corbett attacks this as “intellectually dishonest”.
Open Europe say their research shows that 96 % of the treaty is the same as the constitution with only 10 items out of 250 dropped.
The Conservatives’ Europe spokesman Mark Francois keeps hammering away, arguing that it is “the constitution under another name”. A government white paper on the process sets out the nature of an “amending treaty”.
Global Vision says this is deeply dishonest as Britain’s relationship with the EU will be “profoundly altered”.
Much of this depends whether you accept the government’s argument, which it can’t state as baldly as it would like. It would go something like this: “We never thought it was a real constitution in the first place but once they called the wretched thing a ‘constitution’ it was hard to resist calls for a referendum. Now we’ve got rid of the word and all the mentions of flags and anthems and other constitutional stuff it doesn’t look like a constitution. So even if it is pretty much the same as the old document there’s no need for a referendum. Now, can we get on with something more interesting?”
Funnily enough, it’s the sentence I have just invented that I’m most interested in at the moment.
For I think all the signs are that Britain has its most passionately pro-European foreign secretary since Robin Cook, who intends to win, not duck the argument about Europe. Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett were in terms of New Labour’s boundaries, sceptics.
David Miliband’s first visit was not to Washington or Iraq, but Paris and Berlin. The white paper states quite clearly that the European Union is “crucial” to Britain and “at the heart” of its efforts in the world. Mr Miliband has made it one of his top priorities.
That’s a pretty bland, politico-speak sentence - but think about it.
In his first big foreign policy speech, Mr Miliband mocked the idea that the Foreign Office had 10 “strategic priorities.” So he has whittled them down to just three:
- • Tackling extremism and its causes
- • Climate change
- • Forging a “more effective European Union to help build prosperity and security within European borders and beyond"
Out goes fighting international crime, supporting the UK economy and managing migration - all on the surface sexier subjects than the EU. Which makes me think he really means it.
In the same speech he states: “Britain acting alone does not possess the power or legitimacy to directly effect changes on the scale required” in the world. He repeats his call for the EU to become the “Environmental Union” and goes out of the way to argue for the EU to play a bigger role in foreign affairs, “giving better expression to the common commitments of nation states”.
Now, I have heard Jack Straw and Margaret Beckett say similar things in interviews or when put on the spot in the Commons. But Mr Miliband is sticking his neck out, emphasising that this analysis is central to his approach.
Indeed, in his statement on the Alexander Litvinenko case he suggests Russia should amend its constitution to accept the European arrest warrant if it wants freer access to EU markets.
I don’t want to overstate the significance of this, but many senior British politicians who support the EU don’t go out of the way to give it good reviews, and give positive examples of where they think it increases Britain’s clout in the world. They think it just puts another barrier between their argument and their audience.
I think, come the autumn, we are in for a more interesting battle than we thought. But however strongly Mr Miliband believes in his case, I doubt he wants to test it in a referendum.