Tony Blair has a good story on Europe: he should stick to it

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The Independent Culture
THE EUROPEAN elections have become more famous as an interval than as a political event. The new EC President Romano Prodi won't allocate the portfolios for his new EU commissioners until the election is over. It is unlikely - though not impossible - that the pro-European Tory grandees will give even a hint of their largely unprintable views about William Hague's European policy until after polling day on 10 June.

For a man who has not in the past been exactly enthusiastic about the role of the European Parliament, Tony Blair yesterday gave a valiant impression of a man who would dearly likely to see electors turning out in droves, come the day. But when an audibly appalled Swedish television reporter suggested to him that the turnout might be as low as as 30 per cent, the Prime Minister shrugged and spread his arms in a kind of "your guess is as good as mine" gesture. He very much hoped that was not the case, but he certainly wasn't going to start making predictions.

And yet we have learnt quite a lot from the election launches in the past few days about what has happened to the European debate in the last two years, and at least something about the nature of the fault line that will be drawn in a general election that may be no more than two years away.

First, Mr Blair is uninhibited about his Europeanism in a way that he was not in the buttoned-up atmosphere of the run-up to the 1997 general election. The fact that he has approved the use of the manifesto of the pan-EU Party of European Socialists (PES) is symbolic, though not quite in the way that you would gather from yesterday's Daily Telegraph. It is true that Mr Blair could not quite bring himself yesterday to refer to the PES by its proper name, since it would involve use of the S-word. It is true, too, that the document, with its brief mention of "social partnership", does not go quite so far as Mr Blair unblinkingly did yesterday in describing Labour - without a blush from his candidates - as "the party of enterprise and business".

But in fact, for its all its enthusiastic expression of hope for a successful single currency, the document, in whose construction Robin Cook played a prominent part, is more unexceptionally congenial to Anglo-Saxon views in favour of a liberal economy than anything of its kind ever collectively produced in Europe. For good measure it even uses a phrase strikingly similar to the language of Tony Blair's party conference speech last year - that Europe should commit itself to "integration wherever necessary, and decentralisation wherever possible".

As significant is the wholly relaxed language in which Mr Blair has now lifted the taboos that were second nature to his predecessors. Hang on, he was asked, the manifesto refers to an extension of qualified majority voting. What exactly did Mr Blair envisage in the way of veto surrender? Well, there were a few headings agreed at Amsterdam (in fact, they were pretty modest, confined to research and development, rules under which foreign nationals can work in other countries, and an arcane area of agricultural law). But, in any case, there was no reason to be hung up on this. Of course Britain believed in retaining the veto on defence and borders and taxation. But what hopes would there be for reform of the Common Agricultural Policy without majority voting? And this was just one example.

And so, too, on the single currency. The credibility of Mr Blair's line is a good deal more than adequate for the European elections, and patently more intellectually convincing than the Tories, who, he pointed out with some relish yesterday, will neither say that it should be ruled out for good on principle - much as many of them would like to - or follow Labour in saying that it is right to join in principle, but only when and if it is in Britain's economic interests.

There are slight worries in the Labour ranks that Hague's anti-single currency line will help it to win votes during the coming campaign, and Blair was careful to say yesterday that he was not setting any "artificial timetable" for entry. But he has a good story and he is sticking to it.

So far so good. But what the exchanges of the last few days have shown is that there are two big unresolved and indirectly related questions about the general election still far ahead. The first, of course, is a Tory one.

Will the pro-European Tories really be able to go through the general election recommending support for their party when it is dead set against an objective which they centrally want to see? Will Michael Heseltine really be able to bring himself to campaign for a Conservative Party that is clearly committed not to allow such a referendum? Will a restive Lord Howe? Will Kenneth Clarke? And isn't there in fact some logic in the position of the breakaway pro-European Tories that the time to have that bust- up is now? (Especially since if, as he fervently hopes, William Hague actually does rather well in these elections then his hand, within his own party, in resisting entry to EMU will actually be strengthened.)

The other, equally unanswered question concerns what the Government will do when the election comes. Some time ago a senior minister said privately that he could not see how the Government could go into the next election without having taken a clear decision on whether, after the election, to recommend EMU entry to the British electorate. And to judge by the number of questions put to Mr Blair on the subject yesterday, the alternative is potentially nightmarish. Is the Government going to face, day after day, questions that only elicit the answer that the decision will be taken after polling day? At the very least, it is not going to make the election easy going. On the other hand, there are attractions in that course. To turn the next general election into what would certainly then become an EMU election would carry political dangers, not to mention, potentially, those of a turbulent market through the election period. There is a strong case for saying that the Cabinet decision to join needs to be followed almost immediately by the calling of a referendum and therefore would have to be left until after the election.

This question doesn't have to be answered yet. And it hasn't been, for the simple reason that the Prime Minister has almost certainly not made up his mind. It's a safe bet, moreover, that with a war to run and a Northern Ireland settlement to achieve, it is not even at the top of his thoughts. Moreover, he wants, in his Fabian way, to watch and wait, seeing how EMU develops in Europe in the meantime.

But for all the brave protestations of ministers that the EMU issue will resolve itself, it is one that will become increasingly important in the coming two years. This week the actors' first read-through started. But the real performance is not so far away.