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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The North Rhine-Westphalia effect

The most fascinating part of my visit to Brussels last week was hearing the different perspectives about the future of the European project. By the time I left the French referendum had still not taken place but everybody, without exception, was expecting a 'No' vote. They were not wrong.

Interestingly, I did not come across anybody who believed that a 'Non' will make any difference whatsoever to Europe and the way that it operates. As far as the Eurocrats are concerned it will be business as usual and they will muddle along with the present structures.

The event that they were most fearful of was the outcome of the elections in the German region of North Rhine-Westphalia. One European Civil Servant told us that culturally and politically, the fact that Gerhard Schröder lost this election was as if Tony Blair and Labour had lost a first past the post election in Wales. That Schröder might now react by turning his back on Brussels or worse campaigning against it, was considered to be potentially disastrous. This belief summed up the dynamics of the European Union and the pivotal position of Germany and France within it.

It is easy to see how a politician or a civil servant can 'go native' in Brussels. British Labour MEPs have voted against the policy of their own Government to remove Britain's opt-out clause on the Working Time Directive. Other British MEPs have described their countries resolute refusal to back down on Britain's budget rebate as unsustainable. It is the fact that progress is made (or not) through a series of negotiating positions in the National interest rather than through consensus around common interests that makes Brussels so fascinating. It is as if there were a series of armed camps circling the Commission building. Once you are inside the institution itself you become inured to the conflict outside.

I do not know what impact Schröder's little local difficulty and France's 'Non' will have on the dynamics of Europe. What does seem apparent however is that both are losing influence. The European Union may have been forged in their National interests but enlargement and the increasingly fluidic state of opinion amongst their respective electorates is undermining that model.

When Tony Blair challenges Jacques Chirac to declare whether the EU constitution is dead or alive, he is not just doing it to get himself out of a difficult referendum, he is also driving home an advantage that could see the European project re-structured in a far more radical way than anything the new constitution envisages.
We have commented on this extensively at http://www.bazaarz.com We believe that France is on a downward spiral that cannot be resolved without a socio-economic revolution of the kind that Sweden adopted to get itself out of trouble. Chirac is weak. His repsonse demonstrates that. Holland saying 'nee' will reinforce the differences that exist across state boundaries. Saying it is business as usual is myopic. India and China will kill Europe as they vie for economic supremacy over the US.
The French 'No' vote was predicted, as was the Dutch. So why is the media reporting this as if it were an earth-shattering upset? It's been on the cards for months?

What's going on? Preparing the ground for TB to look great when he fixes this terrible mess in a few weeks time? Why the pretence?
If TB can fix this in a few months time then I will be astonished. The UK has very little political stock in Europe.
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