The European Presidency: Memo to the Iron Chancellor: don't pick fights you can't win

Share
Related Topics
This may not be the decent moment to do so, but cast your mind back to the last time Britain held the Presidency of the European Union, five long years ago. This morning, Tony Blair ushers in our six-month term with some New Labour fun and games at Waterloo Station - a rousing speech, flashing videos and further national rebranding, all in the presence of dignitaries disgorged from a Eurostar train, symbol of our unbreakable ties with the lands beyond the Channel.

In fact of course we don't start the job until January 1, but custom now dictates that the incoming Presidency rings the celebratory bells a few weeks early. And this time they will have a distinctly sweeter chime. Labour after all has placed itself squarely "at the heart of Europe" and broken the self-defeating cycle of Tory Euro-scepticism.

Or has it? Yes, there are new players, and the mood music has changed almost beyond recognition. But consider, uneasily, a couple of parallels between today and the second half of 1992. Then as now, a modest whiff of Europhilia was abroad in the land. The Maastricht treaty on European union had just been signed and John Major had secured his opt-out from the Social Chapter, supposedly saving Britain from creeping Euro-socialism. The federal beast, it had been proved, could be tamed. Maybe Europe wasn't so bad after all. We all know what happened next.

First Denmark rejected the Maastricht Treaty. Then that psychological setback was dwarfed by the humiliation of Black Wednesday, as the pound crashed out of the ERM. This time of course, there's no risk of watching half the Bank of England's reserves evaporate over the duration of a banker's lunch. But once again trouble is brewing over money - to be precise, the institutional arrangements for the ERM's successor, the single currency.

The Blair prime ministership will certainly not be destroyed by the issue as Major's was by Black Wednesday. But after six months of sweet-talk, the honeymoon with Europe is abruptly over. Gordon Brown is sulking and the Government is sounding, and acting, Old Tory. With one important difference, however. The Conservatives knew they could expect few favours in Brussels. Labour is getting the reverse of what it expected.

The row, to recap, is over whether Britain should be represented on Euro- X, the informal committee of Finance Ministers from the 11 (of 15) EU members who will sign up for the single currency launch in January 1999. Mr Brown, struggling to preserve Britain's claim to be a European pace- setter, says we cannot be excluded from what might become a crucial decision- making body. To which the others retort that Britain cannot have its cake and eat it - or, in the charming formulation of France's finance minister, that the common currency is a marriage, and "partners in a marriage do not want anyone else in the bedroom". And that was that. Our Iron Chancellor left with a flea in his ear, and a lesson learnt the hard way: don't pick fights you can't win.

For whatever happens, the Euro-club members will confer regularly among themselves on economic policy. The British can throw the rulebook at them and prevent them meeting on EU premises on the grounds that some EU members are being excluded; in which case the 11 can repair to a local brasserie to deliberate, or do the whole thing by conference call between their capitals. If they don't want the British along, they won't have them.

And to make matters worse, the quarrel was unnecessary, even counter- productive. All it has done is raise the profile of a committee which the Germans anyway would have made sure did not interfere with Bonn's goal of a single currency managed by a European central bank as austere, unbending and apolitical as the Bundesbank. And where had Mr Brown got the idea he might get in? Certainly not from the French at the Canary Wharf summit last month. Perhaps from the Germans. But force the Germans to choose between France and Britain on an article of European faith such as the single currency, and they'll go with the French. Thus was another miscalculation exposed. The Government thought that simply by dint of the fact they were not Tory, and because they talked positively about the European enterprise, their partners would fall over themselves to accommodate every British demand. Not so.

But all is far from lost. Despite the Euro-X spat, this Government is infinitely more benignly regarded in Europe than its squabbling and bloody- minded predecessor. And so to Waterloo and the Presidency, a six-month turn under the lights. True, Britain will be on the sidelines as the key EMU decisions are taken (who's in, and at what exchange rates). But Messrs Blair, Brown, Cook and the assembled cast will have every opportunity to shine, organising 50 summits and ministerial meetings over the six months, setting agendas, launching EU enlargement and driving through decisions on the environment, drugs and crime fighting - all grist for the Blairite mill of a "People's Europe." And finally there is the "bully pulpit" power of the EU presidency, of which the Government is making much.

But as Mr Brown found out this week, you can bully Europe only so far. More important is this new chance of reminding the domestic audience of the merits of the European Union. "Message" is something this Government excels at. There will be glitzy logos and catchy initiatives, all designed to implant the notion that Europe - and by extension the single currency the Government insists it wants to join - is a good thing. But first that Euro X business must be buried. Let Mr Blair grasp whatever face-saver is on offer at next weekend's Luxembourg summit, for nothing would do more to spoil his Presidency than endless headlines proclaiming "New Row over Europe". It wouldn't be 1992 all over again, but it could get very messy.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and i...

Teaching Assistant for KS1 & KS2 Huddersfield

£50 - £65 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: We are looking for flexible and...

Primary Teaching Supply

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS2 Supply Teacher r...

Year 1/2 Teacher

£130 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Qualified KS1 Teacher required,...

Day In a Page

These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week
The fall of Rome? Cash-strapped Italy accused of selling its soul to the highest bidder

The fall of Rome?

Italy's fears that corporate-sponsored restoration projects will lead to the Disneyfication of its cultural heritage
Glasgow girl made good

Glasgow girl made good

Kelly Macdonald was a waitress when she made Trainspotting. Now she’s taking Manhattan
Sequins ahoy as Strictly Come Dancing takes to the floor once more

Sequins ahoy as Strictly takes to the floor once more

Judy Murray, Frankie Bridge and co paired with dance partners
Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Wearable trainers and other sporty looks

Alexander Wang pumps it up at New York Fashion Week
The landscape of my imagination

The landscape of my imagination

Author Kate Mosse on the place that taught her to tell stories