BRUSSELS — A “stronger Britain in a wider Europe” has been the vision of a succession of British governments but increasingly this debate on the future of Britain in Europe is one in which the media is having to place severe constraints. The strong tradition of English exceptionalism and isolationism that underpins the Euroskeptic press leads it to try to brake any progress on European cooperation and integration, including a visceral opposition to the Treaty of Nice. This relentless Europhobia does not derive from any considered response to the content of the treaty itself but from a dogmatic refusal to contemplate any constructive debate involving Britain’s future and further role in Europe.
When British Prime Minister Tony Blair returned from the Nice summit proclaiming victory, a litter of newspaper reports claimed he had sold Britain out over the issue of sovereignty. Yet despite reports to the contrary, the reality was that, on the fields of Nice, enlargement was won and the interests of Britain — and Europe — were protected.
The prime aim for all the participants at Nice was preparation for EU enlargement. An agreement was reached that removes all the remaining institutional obstacles, and allows for the possibility of the first wave of accession by 2004. It is incredible to think that little more than a decade ago those countries in central and Eastern Europe that are awaiting accession were still part of the Soviet Empire. As Blair said in a statement to the House of Commons “today there is the real prospect of uniting Western and Eastern Europe for the first time in generations.” Those opposing ratification of the Treaty of Nice will, consciously or not, deny these countries swift membership in the Union. The governments in Warsaw, Prague and Budapest have all appealed for the treaty to be ratified as soon as possible.
In managing the impact enlargement will have on institutional arrangements, the individual states struggled to establish a framework that would maintain their status and power. Britain’s success was that it was able to augment its role in any enlarged European Union.
The British government achieved at the Nice summit all its specified objectives; first and most important, to increase the weight of its vote in the powerhouse of the EU, the Council of Ministers; second, to reduce its financial contribution to the level of France and Italy for the first time since membership; third, to ensure that collective defense remains for the moment the responsibility of NATO. Further, in those areas where it would not have been in British — or for that matter, other members’ — interests to agree to qualified majority voting, in particular in respect of taxation and social security, it was agreed that these matters would remain for the moment subject to unanimous decision making. Yet all these achievements have been missed or dismissed by a Euroskeptic media determined to snatch the perception of defeat from the jaws of victory.
The moves toward enhanced cooperation have been used to feed the misplaced fears of a European superstate, despite the restrictions limiting both the areas of policy and the conditions under which enhanced cooperation is allowed.
Further fodder to this skeptical feeding frenzy is the agreement that member states surrender their right to veto EU decisions in 29 new areas. The “veto” is not the protector of either sovereignty or British interests. The argument against retaining unanimity in every area of EU decision-making is simple — it prevents Britain from promoting British interests when any other state choose to exercise a veto. In fact, during the last year, Britain “won” 94 percent (80 out of the 85) of EU decisions taken on the basis of QMV.
The Treaty of Nice has cooled down the pace of integration but not changed its fundamental direction. The European Parliament, the center of “federalist” heresy in the EU, has expressed regret that priority was given to short-term national interests rather than to the broader community interest. Yet Parliament will ratify the treaty because to do anything else will play into the hands of Euroskeptics. This is exactly why the rightwing Euroskeptic press in Britain wants to reject ratification. To get where the Parliament wants is to go through and beyond the Nice and not balk at its ratification. The Parliament knows that the 2004 intergovernmental conference will create a further opportunity to push the agenda forward. Hence the challenge will be to reach a final settlement on the division of power and sovereignty between the EU and the member states.
The process of ratification itself will take a couple of years, so naturally the British government will leave it until after the coming general election. The Europhobes have sought to appropriate a naive patriotism and xenophobia for political ends but the government will continue to promote a stronger Britain in a wider Europe in the interests of the nation.
The relationship between the Europe of the EU and the Europe of sovereign states will long be, and should be, a source of tension, but this should encourage not stifle a constructive debate about the future. The superstate myth was firmly put down at Nice when French President Jaques Chirac referred to the “United Europe of States” as a far cry from the “United States of Europe” advocated by Winston Churchill in 1946.
Both British Prime Ministers Margaret Thatcher and John Major rightly agreed to “surrender” key areas of national sovereignty to promote the national interest. Later they recanted. They were wrong. Britain — and Europe’s — best interest is to continue to move patiently forward. The inevitability of incrementalism will see the EU emerge and deliver its promises to the peoples of Europe. West, Central and East. Britain must be part of that process.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.