The leaders of Western Europe fiddle while the continent burns

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The Independent Culture
I HAVE spent the week in search of Europe, driving across the fatally tank-friendly plains of northern France, skirting the battlefields that shaped the century and gave rise to the post-war dream of a Europe in which war would be dispelled by unifying institutions.

In the great cathedral at Reims where Konrad Adenauer and General de Gaulle first marked the reconciliation of hoary enmities, we gaze at the rose windows, whose unique blue glass no modern chemistry can reproduce, and at the Modernist homage of the fine Chagall window. Along the journey, the car radio crackles the same news in the different languages. Still no decision on ground troops in Kosovo, the refugees stuck in their no man's land, Slobodan Milosevic sleeping safe in his Belgrade bunker .

European history is the story of periods of order and disorder. Which is this? Most of us experience Europe now as an orderly world of business, holidays, the simple joys of civilisation, prosperity, open roads. It is this vision of Europe as the home of progress which is so compelling. But an ideal can also become an excuse for wishful thinking. This is the deception that so many supporters of single currency practise when they try to convince us that it is unquestionably right for Britain to hasten to join EMU, because we all enjoy Chianti and sitting in pavement cafes.

It is a very bad argument, but not an ineffectual one. The aim of Euro- proponents has always been to marginalise critical opinion and to suggest that those who oppose the single currency are in some way culturally as well as economically deficient. The bastardised arguments swirl around us on both sides. I remember the frisson among Tory right-wingers at a dinner addressed by William Hague when he spoke of seeking common ground with Belgian and Dutch Christian Democrats. To many of his colleagues, the very act of talking to a foreigner was suspicious. What they wanted was a Sinn Fein Conservatism: Ourselves Alone.

The Tories' renegade Europhiles have accelerated the dumbing down of the European debate with gusto, caricaturing the Tory leader as a ranting xenophobe. As with the hard left in the Labour Party in the Eighties, their hatred of their own party has become more important than the stated goal of persuading Conservatives to support EMU.

Next week sees the elections to the European Parliament, and let us just say that the sense of national excitement about this event is thoroughly containable. Tony Blair urges us to overcome "ambivalence" about Europe to be "at home" in it and a "leading player": bland phrases constructed to avoid difficult choices.

John Major, under the guidance of Mr Blair's new best friend Chris Patten, tried the same number when he sought to correct a reputation for nay-saying by insisting that Britain would be "at the heart of Europe". It didn't get him off the hook, and nor will Mr Blair's circumlocutions save him from the disagreeable task of making up his mind about a referendum.

The Labour Party's bizarre contribution to ending "ambivalence" about Europe has been to produce two manifestos, one drafted with the European socialists and full of the kind of warnings that the single currency will require the prevention of "harmful tax competition... unfair tax breaks and hidden subsidies". This is the version on which Robin Cook dines out at EU meetings. You imagine him hauling it out of his briefcase as soon as the Eurostar arrives at Lille.

The other, for the consumption of more sceptical domestic audiences, vaunts Mr Blair's success in the sport of EU summit handbag-swinging. It reminds us that the Prime Minister secured the continuation of Maggie's rebate and emphasises Labour's commitment to the retention of the national veto "in matters of national interest such as taxation".

Hang on: is this not the same taxation as the aforementioned "harmful tax competition and unfair tax breaks" that the other Labour manifesto wants to banish? Mr Blair is in favour of the single currency in principle but wants "no arbitrary timetable" for joining it. No wonder his own Europhiles are getting nasty.

Compared to the Government's Euro-shuffling, the Tory manifesto is a model of clarity. Yet the most striking thing about all the election manifestos is how little account they take of Europe's present tragedy.

The Conservative offering makes some good points about the necessity of rolling back the EU's protectionist tendencies in order to allow the new democracies of eastern Europe to sell their goods on our markets, and the need to expand the single market. But these worthy sentiments are not much use faced with the disintegration of Kosovo and the creeping failure of Nato's mission. It is like tidying the dusty corners of the common European home while the roof caves in.

What sort of Europe do Conservatives want to see, beyond one that allows the UK to keep the pound? This is the party that supports American engagement in Europe, but demanded that Nato rule out ground troops at the beginning of the conflict with Serbia. It is the party of strong defence, which cannot quite decide what is worth defending against, short of a Russian nuclear strike on Basingstoke.

Both Labour and Tory Europhiles, so keen to castigate EMU-doubters as Little Englanders, reveal themselves as Little Europeans, obsessed by tax and subsidies - accountants of the European soul. Mr Blair, in his approach to Kosovo, has shown some understanding that a modern Europe should be about more than that. But he is learning the hard way that EU alliances are worthless in a crisis.

The continent's leaders managed one summit of actionless unity before resorting to bickering and havering over the requisite response to barbarism on their doorstep. They will stay up all night arguing about fish while the killings and expulsions let rip. Let us be honest about the scale of our failure: Europe has failed to prevent fighting in the Balkans which has claimed tens of thousands of lives and ruined many more.

We failed to act when the Yugoslav National Army bombed the Croatian town of Vukovar to drive out civilians and annex eastern Slavonia. We failed to act in Bosnia until the carnage of Srebrenica jolted the Americans to act. We failed again to prevent disaster in Kosovo, and we are failing still.

The EU wants the glory of a new "defence identity", but is not ready to act in concert to prevent bloodshed. "We need modern forces, strategic lift, and the necessary equipment to conduct a campaign," says Mr Blair.

But that is only half the story. We need a generation of political leaders who believe that Europe is not just about quotas and qualified majority voting, convergence criteria and communiques, but something more profound - the preservation of a civilised way of life, the duty of care for a peaceful order throughout the continent. We are still no closer to that.