Don't be fooled - Britain's negotiators have defended our interests in Brussels

The EU will never recover popular support if it dwindles into a laborious mechanism for extruding new constitutional texts
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The Independent Online

Here is the story about this week's European summit that other papers dare not print.

Britain has actually done rather well out of the negotiations on the new European constitution. We have delivered on our objective of guaranteeing that unanimity applies to decisions on social security and to all tax matters as well. We have secured a declaration that the Commission has no competence on security of energy supplies, thus removing any anxiety about loss of national control over policy on North Sea oil and gas. We have seen off a late bounce that would have excluded national parliaments from any role in future Treaty amendments. We have resolved the status of the Charter of Rights by securing an explicit text restricting its application to EU law only.

In short, Britain's diplomatic team have once again demonstrated that they are equal to any other in delivering an outcome that protects the legitimate national interests of Britain. Nor have all their victories been of purely defensive character. Britain has also scored some significant gains. For example, national parliaments will have an enhanced role in policing whether any measure proposed by Brussels passes the twin tests of subsidiarity and proportionality. This is a treaty between sovereign member states and not the constitution of a superstate.

The net result also represents some worthy improvements in the governance of the European Union. When the Council of Ministers meets to adopt legislation it will do so in public, ending the embarrassment that the European Union is the only body in the continent that passes laws in secret. The eccentric arrangement by which the Presidency of the European Council is reshuffled after only six months is terminated. Future Presidents of the Council will serve for two and a half years, bringing welcome stability and continuity to its strategic priorities.

So what are our chances this weekend of reading reports congratulating Britain on its success in delivering all our objectives in the new European constitution? Probably less than the prospect of us waking up to a heatwave and spending the rest of the weekend sunbathing. Journalists from the Eurosceptic press know even before they pack their bags for Brussels that, regardless of reality, they are commissioned to turn in pieces confirming that the constitution is a continental plot to deprive Englishmen of their liberty. And government ministers know the script that has already been written for the summit and are doomed to act out their role of standing firm against the imaginary threat.

The charge that should be levelled against Europe is not that the constitution represents any threat, but that the whole exercise is a massive distraction from the real challenge. A valuable reminder of that challenge was provided by the timely publication this week of the latest Eurobarometer survey, which found that for the first time public support for the European Union is now in a minority. The figures for Britain were dire, with only 28 per cent regarding the Union as a "good thing", but all of Europe could muster only 48 per cent.

On any sensible ranking of political priorities, the leaders of Europe should use this summit to rally public support by showing that Europe can deliver real improvements in quantity of jobs, quality of the environment, and combating cross-border crime. Instead they will throw themselves with relish into yet another interminable debate about the process by which decisions are made, which in truth is only absorbing to the politicians who participate in those decisions and of limited interest to the public back home.

Poland has threatened to hold proceedings in Brussels to a stalemate if there is a change to the voting formula. Frankly, the present voting formula is so complex that it cries out for reform. I negotiated the present formula at Nice and even I discovered this week that I could not describe it without first mugging up on the source texts. It has to be progress, and truer to democratic principles, to align voting weights to population size rather than perceptions of national status. The shame is that as a new member Poland has so quickly been infected by the European weakness for making a drama out of an issue rather than focusing on a policy of substance.

Conversely, consider what will not be discussed this weekend at Brussels. There is no place on the agenda for a review of the Stability and Growth Pact, the collapse of which is unquestionably a bigger real problem for Europe than what happens to the new constitution. It is not surprising that Germany and France have both resolved to follow policies that make for economic sense rather than conform to the prescriptions of a pact that would inhibit rather than support growth.

What is scandalous is that the present crisis has been foreseeable for a couple of years and no steps were taken in Europe to amend the terms of the pact before it imploded. A genuine priority for a summit this weekend should have been to reconstruct out of the rubble of the pact a new economic architecture that gave at least as much priority to growth of jobs as stability of finance and did not impose a rigid 3 per cent deficit ceiling that makes no macro-economic sense in a downturn.

Or the leaders could spend the weekend talking about what more Europe could do to promote jobs. The high-water mark of social democrat influence on European summits was at Lisbon when for the first time full employment was adopted as a goal of the European Union. But over subsequent years the Lisbon process has lost that focus on employment, and has never been sold to the public as offering them a better chance of a quality job in a knowledge economy.

Then there is the strategic issue of agricultural reform. Europe still requires its population to pay higher taxes to support a system of agricultural protection that obliges its consumers to pay higher prices. The price of sugar to European consumers is almost exactly double the world price. Nor can it be claimed that the vista of acres of sugar beet which it subsidises enhances the aesthetic quality of the European countryside. Strategic reform of the CAP would free up finance for more popular projects and cut the cost of the weekly shopping basket. It is the kind of populist measure which the European Union can no longer afford to neglect.

The chance of an agreement on the new constitution this weekend is probably 50-50. Personally, I strongly hope that the matter will be resolved by Sunday because I desperately want Europe to move on to the issues where it can make a real difference to the lives of its peoples. The European Union will never recover popular support if it dwindles into a laborious mechanism for extruding new constitutional texts. It will only capture public imagination if the agenda of its summits are seen to be dominated by progress on jobs, environment and living standards, and not fixated on issues of process that matter more to those inside the Council chamber than to their electors at home.