Steve Richards: We want French hospitals and trains. They want our levels of employment

President Chirac will become an Anglo-Saxon by stealth. There is a fair amount of common ground
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The Independent Online

For cautious political leaders, the offer of a referendum on an explosive issue is almost irresistible. Such a dramatic pledge calms down political opponents and postpones awkward debates. The problems with referendums arise when leaders have to hold the treacherous polls. Tony Blair has got around this problem by navigating a convenient third way. He pledges referendums and then does not actually hold them. Mr Blair has managed to do this over electoral reformfor the Commons, the euro - and now the EU constitution.

For cautious political leaders, the offer of a referendum on an explosive issue is almost irresistible. Such a dramatic pledge calms down political opponents and postpones awkward debates. The problems with referendums arise when leaders have to hold the treacherous polls. Tony Blair has got around this problem by navigating a convenient third way. He pledges referendums and then does not actually hold them. Mr Blair has managed to do this over electoral reformfor the Commons, the euro - and now the EU constitution.

Not that Mr Blair has a choice over the constitution. A life-saving project demands that Jacques Chirac utters one of two sentences. Either he must declare: "France will have a second referendum" or: "The French government will by-pass the voters and ratify the treaty." It is inconceivable that he will adopt either course. The treaty is dead. Once more Mr Blair escapes a referendum campaign.

Out of the crisis, some of the most astute pro-Europeans in the British government seek causes for optimism. One upbeat proposition is that the crisis will have a surprisingly positive impact on British politics. Most of the time, pro-Europeans are pitched against Eurosceptics who regard their opposition to Europe as a political crusade. As a result, pro-Europeans become similarly zealous. Now they function in a context in which they have no choice but to display their more characteristic caution and pragmatism.

From Neil Kinnock to Ken Clarke, the message has been the same: the treaty is dead. Events have placed them at one with the pragmatic Eurosceptics who also seek new ways of reviving the EU. Only the extreme Eurosceptics still scream for Britain to pull out altogether. The optimists in the Government suggest the rest could pull together as pragmatic pro-Europeans.

I thought the proposition so compelling, I was going to make the argument myself. That was until Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, made his Commons statement yesterday afternoon, in which he announced that the referendum would be "shelved".

He knows it is dead, but cannot say so yet. More importantly, Mr Straw pointed out that there were parts of the almost-deceased treaty that were supported by all the main British political parties, most specifically the devolution of more powers to national parliaments. He suggested there were some elements to this treaty that were worth saving. This was not an especially contentious point, but he did not get a rational response.

In an unusually crowded Commons there were accusations that the Government would seek to implement the treaty by the back door. Some Tories, including Liam Fox - a contender for the leadership - and Iain Duncan Smith, the former leader, called for a referendum so the treaty could be conclusively killed off with no parts allowed to live in any form. When Ken Clarke displayed his pragmatism, by declaring the treaty dead and calling for renewed focus on the single market and economic reforms, there were few cheers on his side. Some of his colleagues were not interested in progress on any front.

As I listened to the hysterical debate I noticed also, in the peers' gallery, a galaxy of politicians whose political lives had been shaped by the European debate in the 1970s and 1980s: Shirley Williams, David Owen and Bill Rogers, who left the Labour Party partly over Europe; Tony Benn, who came up with the idea of a referendum on Britain's membership in 1975 and was a leader of the "no" campaign (Mr Benn is not a Lord, but is allowed access to view debates in the Commons); Norman Tebbit, who supported Margaret Thatcher as she developed her strident Euroscepticism. I have not seen so many of the big names from previous decades attending a Commons event for a long time.

There is something about Europe that rouses the passions in Britain. After the reaction to yesterday's statement from some MPs, Mr Straw will know that even an attempt to implement some parts of the treaty will cause a fuming row. There can be no revival by stealth. The treaty is truly dead.

In an attempt to avoid another huge row and calm the right-wing newspapers in Britain, there may be a temptation in Downing Street to frame the forthcoming debate crudely as one between the backward-looking social democracy of France versus the economic liberalism of Britain. But it would be perverse and counter-productive for a Labour government to adopt a position where it is attacked by President Chirac from the left - at least as perverse as Conservative MPs opposing the parts of the treaty they had previously supported.

The British economy is in better shape than most of the bigger EU countries, but it is Britain that sends patients to French hospitals and drunken thugs to the resorts of Europe. It is the Europeans who have better trains and cleaner cities.

In a speech last week, President Chirac spoke of the need to tackle unemployment by being more flexible, and declared pragmatically that what matters is what works - a Blairite phrase if ever there was one. He will have no choice but to adopt elements of the Anglo-Saxon model without acknowledging he is doing so. President Chirac will become an Anglo-Saxon by stealth.

Similarly, Mr Blair and Mr Brown have sought to address the low levels of public spending and welfare iniquities in Britain without always stating clearly what they were doing, for fear of alienating their right-wing supporters. We want French hospitals and trains. They want our levels of employment. There is a fair amount of common ground.

A fortnight ago I revealed that Mr Blair had given up on his historic objective of "ending Britain's ambiguity with Europe". He believes the Eurosceptic media in Britain makes this impossible. At least Mr Blair has the comfort of discovering that France too has an ambiguous relationship with Europe. So does Holland. All the EU countries have an ambiguous relationship with Europe; it is just that Britain's is the most ambiguous of all. The ambiguity is inherent, as countries seek to co-operate for reasons of national self-interest.

The real challenges for the EU go beyond a contrived row between Britain and France. They relate to fears that the institutions are too distant and unaccountable. Such fears cannot be resolved in the six months of a British presidency or the "two to three years" Peter Mandelson suggested that Mr Blair requires to come to Europe's rescue.

As far as the British government is concerned, there is only one cause for unequivocal optimism. Muddling along is an incomparably preferable option to the clash of cymbals and the flash of lightning that would have followed a catastrophic referendum defeat. The pledge to hold a referendum served its purpose when Europe was killed off as an issue at the last election.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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