Bruce Anderson

Prepare for an October surprise

Bruce Anderson says that embarrassments over the European constitution may force Tony Blair to call an early election

For nearly seven years, Tony Blair’s caution was the Europhiles’ despair. They wanted him to make the case for Europe and exploit his hold over public opinion. Their confidence exceeded his. Mr Blair was not prepared to take electoral risks for Europe. As recently as December, when the EU constitution seemed lost in the long grass, the PM did not send a search party.

Now everything is different, thanks to al-Qa’eda. Spain’s constitutional obstructiveness ended overnight and with it Poland’s. Suddenly Mr Blair had a choice: renounce his Euro diplomatic ambitions, or embrace the constitution. The speed with which he made his decision surprised some of his former critics, who are now almost ready to credit him with courage. But it is courage buttressed by calculation. Mr Blair is now trying to turn embarrassment into electoral advantage.

In the first place, he believes that his opponents will not be able to find a smoking gun in the constitution’s text. In this, he may be right. Whether or not the drafters set out to give opacity a bad name, they succeeded. It will not be easy to extract damning sentences from the treacly prose. This does not mean that the constitution is a mere tidying-up exercise, as some ministers have mendaciously claimed. Every time the UK has signed away powers to the EU, we later discovered that our politicians have given away more than they realised, or admitted. But if we were to accept the constitution, we would have seen nothing yet. Up to now, it has still been possible to argue, albeit with ever increasing difficulty, that the EU was an association of independent states with common purposes. But the constitution would confer upon it a supra-national legal personality, plus new competences — the EU’s laughable euphemism for its powers — in social policy, employment practices, economic policy, policing matters, criminal justice, border control and defence.

Though the exact scope of these new powers is anything but clear, vagueness is no defence against vastness.

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