The blunder that Blair has made over Europe

The irony is that he was right first time: the constitution doesn't amount to much
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The Independent Online

If the European Union does manage to muddle through to an agreement in Brussels - which I suspect it will - it will be for the worst possible reason: that, like Macbeth, Blair and his European counterparts find that "to return were as tedious as go o'er".

If the European Union does manage to muddle through to an agreement in Brussels - which I suspect it will - it will be for the worst possible reason: that, like Macbeth, Blair and his European counterparts find that "to return were as tedious as go o'er".

The hard men of the argument - Spain and Poland - are in the mood for compromise; Spain because it is under new political management, and Poland because it doesn't want to be the standalone so soon after entering the club. That leaves Britain out on a limb, which is just where Blair doesn't want to be. There are many in government, including part of Tony Blair himself, who would be deeply relieved if the whole summit failed. But he cannot appear to look as if he was the cause, not if he is to have any hope of bringing Britain back to the centre of Europe. So, in a piece of self-dramatics worthy of Peter Sellers' The Mouse That Roared, we will huff and puff, beg our partners to give us something tangible to go home with and declare "victory".

It's not a very edifying posture to be sure. But then that, frankly, is the position of almost every European leader gathering in Brussels today. Their electorates have all made clear their disillusionment with Europe. Yet here they will all be, gathering together with the usual declarations of a "make or break summit" and the windy rhetoric about new cohesion and a new future - that is if the whole meeting doesn't end in tears.

It would save everyone a heap of trouble if it did. For the irony of the British position is that Tony Blair was right first time. The new constitution doesn't amount to much more than a tidying up exercise to ease enlargement. It is only called a constitution at all to satisfy the outsize ego of Giscard d'Estaing, who headed the committee preparing it and wanted something to be remembered by.

If it fell at the post now, the Union would still muddle along while the enabling reforms - fewer commissioners, revised voting rights, the appointment of a president and a foreign minister - could all be done as individual reforms. Indeed you would get a much better debate, and one that involved the public of the European states more closely, if they were treated as separate items for approval by the European parliament and the legislatures of the individual states.

It is only because the European leaders have invested so much time and credibility in the process that we are facing this "do-or-die" decision. It is only because France and Germany in particular demanded a tangible demonstration that the European project was moving forward that they are in the perverse position of answering the general turn-off of the European voter by ramming down their throats a new constitution which, on all the opinion polls, they clearly don't want.

That conundrum applies to President Chirac and Chancellor Schroeder as much as Britain, of course. What is peculiar about the British position is the hole which Tony Blair has put the country in by his decision to go for a referendum on the constitution.

At the time this decision was greeted as a brilliant tactical move, at one stroke pulling the rug from beneath the Tories and getting the government off the hook of having to justify its position in the negotiations. And there are those within the government who believe that the cleverness of that move has been amply borne out by the results of last week's vote by splitting the Tories straight down the middle.

But it's not as easy as that. The distaste in Europe shown up in those elections applies as much to the government in its negotiations in Europe as to the opposition. Hence the determined effort to brief the press that Britain is going to Brussels with all guns blazing. But that has only served to pinion the government between the demands of a domestic audience that now needs to see a real victory in the negotiation and a European Union that needs to move on in unity in response to the obvious signs of a faltering alliance.

The dilemma will only grow worse with time. Far from being able to shelve the issue until the referendum, the decision to promise one is bound to impose itself on the next election. On the one side you will have an opposition rallying round a cry against the constitution and, on the other side, a government which in promising a referendum is also promising to lead the campaign for a yes vote. Michael Howard can afford to concentrate on a no to the constitution as a means of reunifying the no vote. Even those wanting to get out of the Union altogether will support a eurosceptic party that will stop it going further.

The yes vote, on the other hand,is in complete disarray. It has lost its organisation with the disbanding of Britain in Europe. It has no finances. The major pro-European politicians feel betrayed by Blair and desperately worried that his unpopularity could drag down the whole cause. And yet, by proposing a referendum, the PM has put his own reputation behind the success of a project that he was never very enthusiastic about then, and isn't now.

After Iraq, the decision to go for a referendum could prove one of Blair's greatest blunders - provided of course the Poles or someone else doesn't ride to the rescue by wrecking the summit.

a.hamilton@independent.co.uk

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