The current quarrel could be the spur to EU renewal

Share

It seems an eternity since the French voted "no" to Europe's constitutional treaty and set the present crisis in train. In fact, it is just two and a half weeks - two and a half weeks in which Dutch voters have added their "no" to that of the French and something akin to diplomatic warfare has broken out between Downing Street and the Elysée. The Prime Minister's admission of "sharp disagreement" after his meeting with President Chirac is among the strongest expressions of discord likely to come from one European leader about relations with another.

It seems an eternity since the French voted "no" to Europe's constitutional treaty and set the present crisis in train. In fact, it is just two and a half weeks - two and a half weeks in which Dutch voters have added their "no" to that of the French and something akin to diplomatic warfare has broken out between Downing Street and the Elysée. The Prime Minister's admission of "sharp disagreement" after his meeting with President Chirac is among the strongest expressions of discord likely to come from one European leader about relations with another.

Thanks to the untimely intervention of Italy's Northern League, even the viability of the euro has been questioned. Altogether, the impression has been created that the European Union is in terminal disarray and that the European project is doomed. In the Commons yesterday, the Tories could scarcely contain their glee. It was time, Michael Howard said cheerfully, to rethink the whole European Union.

How far this bleak picture reflects the real state of the EU will be tested at the summit that opens today. But it is important not to yield to panic. What we have been witnessing is precisely the sort of posturing and brinkmanship that so often precedes a European summit, especially a summit such as this one, where the budget heads the agenda. This time, for very many reasons - some of them relevant and most not - the arguments have been conducted loudly and in the open.

Thus we know, as in more clement circumstances we might not have done, that the French (and most other EU members) believe that the British rebate, won by Margaret Thatcher 21 years ago, should be an issue. We also know that, in defence of the rebate, Britain will slam down its own traditional trump card - the iniquitous effects of the Common Agricultural Policy. These are satisfactorily simple issues that play well at home at a time when both Mr Blair and M. Chirac could do with a boost. But they are not the whole issue.

When both leaders insist that they will make no concession on their pet EU benefit unless the whole budget is rethought, that approach may not be as negative as it sounds. It could also mean that Britain and France are - perhaps as yet only tentatively - coming to accept that there must be a thorough overhaul of the budget, including the basic principles on which it is set. If this recognition has been triggered by the débâcle of the constitution, that would be no bad thing.

The "pause for reflection" called for by Mr Blair - an echo, as it happens, of M. Chirac's first public response to the French "no" - might also be beneficial. As several national leaders note, failure to agree the 2007-2013 budget this weekend need be no catastrophe. There is time, and so much is currently in flux that it might be worth waiting for passions to calm. France has a new prime minister; Germany faces an election in September; the Italian government looks shaky, and Britain takes over the EU Presidency next month.

On the other hand, the 25 leaders might surprise us. Downplaying expectations is hardly unknown as a pre-summit tactic. And even if there is no agreement, it is worth recalling that only a tiny number of the French and Dutch "no" votes were Eurosceptic in nature. The constitutional treaty was mishandled and poorly sold, if at all, by national leaders. But the EU does not collapse without it. It merely reverts to the clumsier arrangements agreed at Nice. The real vindication of the EU, and evidence of its durability, is the number of countries still so eager to join that they are rewriting their laws, reforming their economies and advancing their citizens' rights. Even if Europe's future is as uncertain as it seems today, this is an historic achievement, and it should not be forgotten.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, UI, JMX, FIX)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Client-Side web developer (JQuery, Javascript, U...

Structured Finance

Highly Competitive Salary: Austen Lloyd: CITY - An excellent new instruction w...

SQL Server Developer

£500 per day: Harrington Starr: SQL Server Developer SQL, PHP, C#, Real Time,...

C#.NET Developer

£600 per day: Harrington Starr: C#.NET Developer C#, Win Forms, WPF, WCF, MVVM...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

If children with guns are safer than their unarmed peers, then Somalia must be the safest place in the world to grow up

Mark Steel
Theresa May  

Democracy and the police: a system in crisis

Nigel Morris
Ukraine crisis: The phoney war is over as Russian troops and armour pour across the border

The phoney war is over

Russian troops and armour pour into Ukraine
Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

Potatoes could be off the menu as crop pests threaten UK

The world’s entire food system is under attack - and Britain is most at risk, according to a new study
Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Gangnam smile: why the Chinese are flocking to South Korea to buy a new face

Seoul's plastic surgery industry is booming thanks to the popularity of the K-Pop look
From Mozart to Orson Welles: Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

Creative geniuses who peaked too soon

After the death of Sandy Wilson, 90, who wrote his only hit musical in his twenties, John Walsh wonders what it's like to peak too soon and go on to live a life more ordinary
Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Caught in the crossfire of a cyber Cold War

Fears are mounting that Vladimir Putin has instructed hackers to target banks like JP Morgan
Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years

Salomé: A head for seduction

Salomé's feminine wiles have inspired writers, painters and musicians for 2,000 years. Now audiences can meet the Biblical femme fatale in two new stage and screen projects
From Bram Stoker to Stanley Kubrick, the British Library's latest exhibition celebrates all things Gothic

British Library celebrates all things Gothic

Forthcoming exhibition Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination will be the UK's largest ever celebration of Gothic literature
The Hard Rock Café's owners are embroiled in a bitter legal dispute - but is the restaurant chain worth fighting for?

Is the Hard Rock Café worth fighting for?

The restaurant chain's owners are currently embroiled in a bitter legal dispute
Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival

In search of Caribbean soul food

Caribbean cuisine is becoming increasingly popular in the UK ... and there's more to it than jerk chicken at carnival
11 best face powders

11 best face powders

Sweep away shiny skin with our pick of the best pressed and loose powder bases
England vs Norway: Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Roy Hodgson's hands tied by exploding top flight

Lack of Englishmen at leading Premier League clubs leaves manager hamstrung
Angel Di Maria and Cristiano Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

Di Maria and Ronaldo: A tale of two Manchester United No 7s

They both inherited the iconic shirt at Old Trafford, but the £59.7m new boy is joining a club in a very different state
Israel-Gaza conflict: No victory for Israel despite weeks of death and devastation

Robert Fisk: No victory for Israel despite weeks of devastation

Palestinians have won: they are still in Gaza, and Hamas is still there
Mary Beard writes character reference for Twitter troll who called her a 'slut'

Unlikely friends: Mary Beard and the troll who called her a ‘filthy old slut’

The Cambridge University classicist even wrote the student a character reference
America’s new apartheid: Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone

America’s new apartheid

Prosperous white districts are choosing to break away from black cities and go it alone