Leading article: Mr Hague is quite wrong over Europe, but he is not daft

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GIVE WILLIAM Hague credit for one thing: at least he seems to be talking about the real issues in the European elections. Labour seems to be relying on Tony Blair's turbo-charged popularity, while the Liberal Democrats are running on anything but their status as the most pro-European of the main parties. The Tory leader is now talking about renegotiating the treaties of the European Union. He is profoundly wrong, and he is playing havoc with Tory Party unity, but he is not daft. At the Cologne summit at the weekend, Europe's leaders agreed that there would have to be treaty amendments to rejig the EU's decision-making systems to cope with the accession of Cyprus, the Czechs, Estonia, Hungary, Poland and Slovenia, and then Bulgaria, Latvia, Lithuania, Romania and Slovakia.

But Mr Hague is edging towards the isolationist position, effectively wanting to renegotiate Britain's relationship with today's world: the constraints on UK sovereignty do not come from just the EU, but from a web of other treaties that've also spawned their own legal systems.

We now live in a treaty-bound world, a law-bound world in which the growing scope of international law limits the space in which politicians can operate. The Eurosceptics often overlook the fact that the law laid down by the European Convention on Human Rights is just as "intrusive" as EU law, and that Britain is also bound by the law laid down by United Nations treaties, not to mention simple bilateral treaties governing extradition and tax. Augusto Pinochet and Slobodan Milosevic both find themselves caught in this web, and a good thing too.

This new legal order does mean there is less scope for politicians, although Tony Blair has shown how there is still room for leadership: how getting things done means cutting through the swampy treacle of institutions like Nato and their supra-national bureaucracies. It is amazing what a clear sense of purpose can achieve when combined with political skill, charm and a careful way with words.

The idea that the way forward is to opt out of one of the most benign and potentially most powerful of these networks is bizarre. Renegotiation of EU treaties, in the sense of extrication meant by Mr Hague and the Institute of Directors, is hardly feasible. The renegotiators show every sign of wanting to opt back into the Fifties, when people travelled by ship, were only allowed to take pounds 25 in sterling with them and the Internet was science fiction.

But it is frankly hard to know how to decide how to vote on Thursday. Despite Hague's creeping isolationism, many Tory MEPs played an honourable role in bringing down Jacques Santer's corrupt and inefficient Commission, while Labour MEPs propped it up until the last minute. As ever, this argues for more, and better, democracy, not less. So at least vote on Thursday, whatever you do.