Straw's vision of Europe is an encouraging start

Foreign Secretary places Britain at heart of the debate in Brussels after years of sitting on the sidelines
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For months, the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has let his controversial Europe minister, Peter Hain, make the running. Today Mr Straw is back in the driving seat with one of the most important speeches on the EU by a British foreign minister of recent years.

Traditionally Britain has avoided grandiose schemes for the future of Europe, preferring to leave the big picture to those on the Continent. The Foreign Office, meanwhile, would concentrate on nitty gritty diplomacy or warnings to Brussels to keep out of the "nooks and crannies" of national life. But it is a measure of the growing influence of Britain within the EU that this is changing fast, and Mr Straw's ideas are likely to be taken very seriously.

The timing of today's speech in The Hague is designed to achieve maximum impact. Next week the EU launches a convention which will draw up options for how the EU should reform itself after it admits up to 10 new countries in 2004.

Although treated with some scepticism at first, there is now a consensus that the convention, which will be chaired by the former French president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, will be a serious and important venture. It is expected to propose far-reaching reforms to the heads of government who will re-write the EU's governing treaty in 2004. Mr Straw's speech is designed to help set the agenda.

The growing confidence of the Foreign Office is striking. Europe last set about establishing a convention of national and European parlia- mentarians in the run-up to the Nice Treaty, which was agreed by member states in 2000. This was a much smaller exercise which drafted Europe's Charter of Fundamental Rights.

Then the exercise was greeted with suspicion by Whitehall. This time Mr Straw has associated himself with the Convention because he feels that Britain can win the argument. This is partly because of the success of a constructive engagement policy under which Tony Blair has courted allies across the EU. With the traditional axis between France and Germany under growing stress, Mr Blair has gained new leverage through alliances with, for example, Spain.

Moreover, the tide is moving away from the federalist superstate of Eurosceptic nightmares. Germany worries about paying for enlargement and France's attachment to the nation state is re-emerging.

Both countries face elections this year and Germany's Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, has already begun a little populist Brussels-bashing, maybe because his rival, Edmund Stoiber, has a reputation as a bit of a sceptic. Under Silvio Berlusconi, meanwhile, Italy is singing a much more strident version of the same tune.

All of which makes Mr d'Estaing's convention less of a threat and more of an opportunity. While the government believes in closer involvement in Europe it also wants to keep as much power as possible with the member states, and away from the unelected bureaucracy of the European Commission or elected but unpredictable European Parliament.

Mr Straw is correct in identifying the main obstacle is the Council of Ministers, the place where the governments meet and take decisions and one of the institutions most in need of reform. It is the most powerful part of the EU but is little known to the public. It meets in private and is therefore difficult for the media to report, producingthe misconception that most decisions are taken by unelected bureaucrats.

The Council has little continuity because it is chaired by a presidency which rotates around the member states every six months, leading to extraordinary switches of emphasis. For example the Finnish presidency of 1999 stressed the need for a "northern dimension" including better relations with Russia. That was followed by the Portuguese presidency which said it wanted a new focus on Africa.

Streamlining the Council is vital if the machinery of the EU is to adapt to the strains imposed on it by the admission of around 10 new member states. The ideas outlined today will not be the final word, but they are an important and sensible start.