A revealing interview with Geoff Hoon in Le Figaro (in English) has confirmed something I’ve suspected for quite a while now – the UK simply does not have an EU policy.
Hoon, following his poor showing with the Defence portfolio was demoted to Leader of the House, which he also messed up, leading to further demotion to Europe Minister. On the surface, Hoon’s appointment could have been seen as a sensible move – he did, after all, spend almost a decade as an MEP, so should know what he’s talking about. But this is Geoff Hoon we’re talking about. In his year in the post, what contributions has he made to the EU debate that’s been raging in other member states? Let’s see…
On December 6th 2006, Hoon asserted that “The Government have a very clear policy on the European constitution,” and that policy was set out in a Written Ministerial Statement of 5th December 2006. The key points?
1) Pursuing British interests
2) Modernisation and effectiveness
4) Subsidiarity (working at the right level)
5) Use of existing Treaties
How well has this been done? Well, considering that no changes to the EU can occur without consensus, point 3 strikes ma as the most important. How well has the UK done in building a consensus of opinion in the EU in the months since Hoon outlined the (decidedly vague and management jargon-heavy) British approach?
– 20th February 2007, Geoff Hoon: “There is no consensus among member states at this stage”
– 20th March 2007, Geoff Hoon: “At present there is no consensus among EU Governments”
– 1st May 2007, Geoff Hoon: “There is at present no consensus among EU partners on the way forward”
But go back to the interview with Hoon in Le Figaro, and little wonder Britain’s not managed to get consensus. For one thing, it’s pretty clear that our Europe Minister – and therefore our government as a whole – is concerned less with what actually happens in terms of EU reform, but in how it appears, as with an EU foreign minister:
“We are worried because the title ‘minister’ would inevitably have a state connotation. But the aim is not to create a European state. This title will have to be reconsidered”
And again, “These are politically sensitive issues”, and the classic “We will have to discuss the details” followed swiftly by “I do not want to go into details”…
Meanwhile, has Hoon actually pressed ahead with any major meetings? Well, no. The big EU meetings, face-to-face with heads of state and the like, have been handled by Tony Blair (when he can be bothered, or if he’s been invited…). The regular policy discussions are handled at the monthly meetings of EU Foreign ministers, which Hoon’s boss Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett attends.
So, has Margaret Beckett got anywhere?
– 1st May 2007, Margaret Beckett: “At present, there remains no consensus among EU partners”
Oh dear… And as her opposite number William Hague noted when Mrs Beckett reported back from the European Council in December, “The Foreign Secretary… failed to mention one thingâ€”the European constitution.”
This prompted a long and rambling response from Mrs Beckett that ended quite simply and revealingly with, “we will see what proposals are put forward”.
Yep, it’s John Major’s “wait and see” all over again. Which has, it would appear, been the British government’s policy towards the EU for at least two years now. As Hoon’s statements in that interview with Le Figaro make clear, no one in the British government is willing to go on record saying anything other than the most vague nonsense about the next steps for the EU.
Do we support a multi-speed Europe, as proposed again yesterday by Romano Prodi (and as Nicholas Sarkozy seems to be vaguely pushing for with his “Mediterranean Union” idea)? It seems an obvious position for Britain to adopt, after all – avoid all the nasty ramifications of the constitution, get fresh opt-outs in economic and judicial policies, and don’t hamper our partners at the same time.
If we don’t support different tiers of EU participation, are we simply looking to pick a fight with our neighbours by putting the brakes on their plans for further integration? Does Gordon Brown henchman Ed Balls’ talk of a “hard-headed pro-Europeanism” indicate a new way forward, or is it simply (as I strongly suspect) the same old prevarication dressed up in fancy new language? Does anyone in government even know what Britain’s EU policy is any more?
And the next UK Prime Minister’s attitude towards the EU? It’s anyone’s guess, as he has yet to make his position even slightly clear. All we do know is that it’s not on his list of priorities – which hardly bodes well for the future of EU reform.
As one of the largest and most economically powerful countries in the EU, the UK should be at the forefront of discussions – not just to have her say, but also because no other EU countries can possibly reach the “consensus” that is Britain’s declared aim without knowing the position of one of the big three. Yet throughout the German presidency Britain has shirked her European responsibilities, just as she did when the UK herself held the EU presidency. Once again, the UK is holding the EU back – more subtly and less confrontationally than Poland, perhaps, but just as effectively.
If the EU is ever going to get a consensus on the future of the EU, the core problem has to be tackled – and that problem is not nor ever has been the precise nature of the much-needed institutional reforms, it’s the ambiguous attitude and apathetic reluctance of the United Kingdom whenever the European Union is mentioned. It’s almost as if the British government has its fingers in its ears, humming to itself, pretending that the EU doesn’t exist and that maybe if they ignore it long enough it’ll just go away. Well, surprise surprise – it won’t. Consensus doesn’t come without discussion, the one thing the British government seems to hate above all else.
Will Gordon Brown change anything when he becomes Prime Minister? Well, just like the government when it comes to the EU, we’ll have to wait and see. But I doubt it very much indeed.
Update: More on this from the Telegraph