Most people would rather forget why European leaders agreed to hold an extraordinary summit in Dublin this October. Ask the Irish hosts and they offer knowing smiles. At the European commission, fonctionnaires seek refuge behind the old clich? about “relaunching” Europe, as if the EU had spent the last six months in dry dock.
Overriding objections from the Irish presidency, Captain Jacques Chirac is the man steering a course for a mid-autumn meeting. Like Fran?ois Mitterrand and General de Gaulle, Chirac likes nothing better than to sit down informally with fellow leaders and swap stories, although the word is that the Frenchman likes to class people as officers and crew.
Remember his inaugural EU summit in Cannes last year. Chirac castigated the Italians for manipulating the lira, slapped down the Dutch for tolerating cannabis caf?s in Amsterdam, and scolded anyone who dared to speak out against French nuclear testing in the South Pacific. As one veteran French journalist remarked at the time, the French president’s performance was half Boris Yeltsin, half Louis XIV.
Chirac has since calmed down a bit; but he has a pressing reason for calling for a summit midway through the Irish presidency. His private nightmare is a revolt in France caused by stubbornly high unemployment. His plan to head off trouble is to stage a summit in Dublin devoted to the theme of “social Europe.” This is the lofty term which EU leaders trot out when seeking to demonstrate that they are still in touch with ordinary working men and women. Who are they trying to kid?
With more than 20m people out of a job in Europe, no sane politician would be pursuing Maastricht-led deflation. Captain Chirac insists this is the price to be paid for economic and monetary union. The truth is that the Dublin summit is a cynical attempt to shore up popular support for the faltering project to create a single currency in Europe.
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the good news is that Dublin castle-which hosts the meeting as well as a second Euro-summit in mid-December-is a cut above recent summit locations which include a refurbished Fiat car factory (Turin), a post-modern exhibition centre (Madrid), and a steel trade fair monstrosity (Essen).
Once the seat of British government in pre-independence Ireland, Dublin castle also witnessed the opening of Margaret Thatcher’s campaign in 1981 for a lower British contribution to the Brussels budget. Her remark that Britain was not prepared to accept “half a loaf” won acclaim in her party and poisoned relations with the rest of Europe.
With the exception of the Greeks, most people in Europe believe that the EU is about more than money. But they still find it difficult to pin down the precise raison d’?tre. Helmut Kohl says that it is about the difference between war and peace, but in peace-riven western Europe hardly anyone is listening.
Over at the intergovernmental conference (IGC), negotiators are still struggling to define their mandate. No one seriously believes that this treaty revision is about strengthening “transparency”-the vain Scandinavian hope of opening up EU decision-making to public scrutiny. Nor do people believe that the IGC’s goal is to prepare the EU for the entry of ten poor east European countries: that would be too costly and disruptive. In the absence of the big idea, the IGC is fast becoming an exercise in ganging up on the British.
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hard to imagine, but Britain is probably more unpopular today in Europe than at any time since we joined the community. Or did we join? These days, people in Brussels are not so sure if Britain is “in” or “out.” We do not want to be part of social Europe; we cannot make up our minds about monetary union; and we want to roll back the powers of the European court of justice. About the only things we have to contribute right now are mad cow disease, and its offshoot, a churlish English nationalism.
The symptoms of la vache folle anglaise are everywhere. At the Florence summit last June, John Major was asked to comment on Swedish Premier G?ran Persson’s remark that Britain would have to pay a price for its blocking tactics over BSE. Anyone who tries to take on Britain better watch out, replied Major, sounding like a character out of Beano comic. Even Malcolm Rifkind, our Scottish foreign secretary, has caught the English disease.
Before the summer break Rifkind sent a blistering letter to the Finnish government protesting about its failure to consult Britain over a joint initiative with Sweden on defence policy. The Finns were incredulous, not just because the tone of the letter belonged to the Palmerston era but because Rifkind has spent most of his time as foreign secretary flirting with Tory Euro-sceptics, presumably in a bid to succeed Major as leader of the party after the next general election. Keep dreaming, Malcolm.