At last Britain comes up with a truly radical idea for the EU: scrap more meetings. Plus the latest thinking on what happens if the French vote "no"by Manneken Pis / June 19, 2005 / Leave a comment
Goodbye Denis, you knew too much
In the little world of Brits in Brussels, the big news to come out of the election is that we are to have a new Europe minister. Denis MacShane was sacked in the post-election reshuffle. To tell the truth, he was never really suited to the job, since he was far too interested in the subject and spoke too many European languages. Douglas Alexander, the new man, can be relied upon not to make these mistakes. In his brief forays into Europe in previous jobs, he has displayed a tetchy ignorance worthy of his mentor, Gordon Brown. Still, putting an avowed Brownite in charge of the referendum campaign has one clear advantage for Tony Blair: it ties the chancellor to the “yes” campaign. This may well be advisable. Brown-watchers say that he sounded distinctly lukewarm about the constitution when asked about it during the election campaign.
A really big idea for Brussels
Even before a British referendum, Blair will get his fill of Europe during Britain’s six-month presidency of the EU, which starts on 1st July. Amid all the usual twaddle about “better regulation,” the British do appear to have come up with one radical idea: scrap an EU summit. At the moment there are four summits a year, with each presidency hosting two. Most European leaders relish the chance to chair a discussion of their peers. But Blair can take it or leave it. His argument for scrapping a summit—that there may not be enough on the agenda to justify assembling 25 national leaders—sounds practical. But it has disturbing implications. Where would Brussels be if you started scrapping meetings simply because they were pointless?
If the French vote “no”—ignore them
The British presidency will have an immediate political crisis on its hands if the French or Dutch vote to reject the EU constitution. The Netherlands go to the polls on 1st June, just three days after France. Many in Britain have been confidently predicting that any such rejection by a founder member of the EU would kill the constitution stone dead. But that is not how it seems from Brussels, where the conventional wisdom is that the ratification process would go on. In part, this simply reflects the wishful thinking of federalists, who would be extremely unwilling to kiss goodbye to their beloved constitution. But there are also serious arguments to be made for continuing with the ratification process. One is that by the time the French and Dutch vote, at least seven countries—including big ones like Germany and Spain—will have ratified the document. Are they simply to be told that their wishes now count for naught because the French or the Dutch do not like the document? The second argument for pressing on is that before EU leaders can decide what to do next, they will need to know exactly where they stand. If the constitution is rejected by just one country, the situation would be considerably different from one in which seven or eight had refused to ratify. So Tony Blair’s secret hope that a French “no” might get him off the hook of his own referendum may yet prove vain.
What with the referendum on 29th May, this is a worrying time to be the French ambassador to the EU. But Pierre Sellal, France’s “perm rep,” has an even more delicate issue on his mind—and that is how to take over the residence of the French ambassador to Belgium (as opposed to the EU), a grand 18th-century mansion in the centre of Brussels, which compares rather favourably with Sellal’s own comfortable—but undeniably suburban—residence. The housing issue is a fairly common problem for ambassadors to the EU; it stems from the fact that the state of Belgium, founded in 1830, pre-dates the EU by some 127 years. As a result, the central Brussels mansions— which combine grandeur and convenience—tend to be bagged by the bilateral ambassadors, while the ambassadors to the EU—although they have a much more important job—are often stuck out in the suburbs. The British switched the residences about a decade ago, and Her Majesty’s EU ambassador is now installed in some splendour on the Rue Ducale. Douglas Hurd claimed that dealing with the question of the Brussels residences was the trickiest piece of negotiation he had to handle during his time as foreign secretary. The French are experiencing similar problems. The country’s ambassador to Belgium is not keen to be moved, and has pointed out that his residence was a gift from the Belgian royal family, made at the time of the foundation of the state. He has argued that it might be an insult—possibly even illegal—if the French government were unilaterally to redesignate his house as the EU ambassador’s residence. Sellal, however, is still pressing his case, despite the fact that his own house has an interesting history. It has a cottage by the swimming pool, originally designed for the use of servants or guests. But in the 1990s, Pierre de Boissieu, a famously eccentric French ambassador to the EU who is now the senior official working for the EU’s council of ministers, chose to live in the cottage for five years and allowed the servants to live in the residence itself. Sellal has no such complex about living in a proper ambassadorial residence and seems likely to make his move after the French referendum. Unless, of course, it turns out to be a “no”—in which case he might find it politic to continue to lurk in the suburbs.