Yet the terms chosen by John Major in his speech last week in Leiden, and by German Christian Democrats in their new plan for Europe, tell us a great deal. They show the growing gap between Britain and its continental partners, but also the extraordinary uncertainty over the future of Europe.
One British metaphor, at least, has ceased to beat. John Major said in Bonn in March 1991 that he wanted to put Britain 'where we belong, at the very heart of Europe'. He was signalling more than just a change of policy from the government of Margaret Thatcher. He was saying, in words that he knew could not be mistaken by his hosts, that he spoke their language, metaphorically if not literally. The heart is the symbol of the CDU, the party of Helmut Kohl, and the main force behind integration.
Like many pro-Europeans, Mr Major was using an organic metaphor, one that compared Europe to a living thing, rather than the mechanical images Mrs Thatcher so often used. She spoke of the 'conveyor belt to federalism', summoning up images of James Bond strapped down in the path of a buzzsaw that would rip him apart, starting with the crotch.
Neither Mr Major nor, increasingly, others in Europe, have been speaking in quite this way for the past three years. For a start, problems with the Eurosceptics have pushed him in a more Thatcherite direction. An editorial in the Independent earlier this year suggested that if Mr Major wanted to be at the heart of Europe, it was, presumably, as a blood clot.
But there is another reason why the language has changed. The spirit of the organic metaphors drew its strength from the idea of Europe as a single whole. Increasingly, the task has been not just to plan for unity: it is to deal with diversity. Since Maastricht, with its plethora of special arrangements and opt-outs, it has been accepted that some would make the grade for a single currency and others would not. The entry of central European countries in the next 10 years makes flexibility all the more important.
Now the imagery of building and construction is becoming widespread. No one wants a Fortress Europe, and Mikhail Gorbachev's Common European House always raised hackles (as anyone who has ever shared a flat with a large, agressive, rather untidy person with little money will understand). The model is more like God's House, with its many mansions.
The negotiation of the Maastricht treaty, for instance, was marked by a clash between two rival ideas of the European Union. One, shared by Germany and the federalist smaller states, saw the Union as a tree, with all its activities brought together in one set of institutions, creating a single federal state. It was a single, growing, living organism, with one trunk, its roots sunk in the rich European soil.
The rival metaphor, backed by France and Britain, was the temple. They wanted different policy areas split off from each other, in separate 'pillars'. Unity was provided by the 'pediment' - the part of the treaty that covered all policy areas. It was this architectural vision that won out, although the reality is more like a game of pick-up-sticks than an orderly set of pillars.
The pace of integration is the second issue - hence the transport analogies. Walter Hallstein, the first president of the Commission, famously likened Europe to a bicycle: it had to go forward, or it would fall over. The British, meanwhile, once referred to Europe under Italian chairmanship as a bus driven by the Marx brothers.
But dynamic metaphors have been turned against Britain as it seemed to be dragging its feet. The train is leaving the station, critics warn, or like Helmut Kohl last week, they insist that the convoy 'cannot move at the speed of the slowest ship'. Mr Major contributed his own version last week in Leiden: 'We don't want Europe to go off the road,' he said. The trouble is, nobody knows what that road will be: no one has a map of what European leaders will decide when they rewrite the EU's treaty in 1996.
Both Mr Major and the CDU acknowledge the need for Europe to develop on different tracks within the same framework. For Mr Major that is in itself an end - different strokes for different folks. For the Germans, a core group must press ahead, leaving others to catch up when and if they can. The Prime Minister fears that the train is being split at Didcot Parkway, and he is in the wrong carriage.
Mr Major's vision, in turn, looks to the more federalist states like a way of slamming on the Euro-train's brakes. By contrast, both the German plan and earlier French thinking point in the direction of a union within a union - but only for a few states, which might not include Britain.
More designs will follow, from political parties, the European Parliament, think-tanks and governments, with different ideas of the pace, structure and spirit of integration. The proliferation of images reflects extraordinary uncertainty about what the picture that emerges from 1996 will look like - let alone how it will sell to the public. Try to imagine a piece of fruit with pillars made of Meccano bowling down a motorway built in concentric circles and you can see the problems.
The Options a la carte: Europe as lunch is one way of accommodating diversity. Pick the courses - or policies - you fancy and dodge the boring ones. But could you leave your greens and still have pudding?
Variable Geometry: Europe as Meccano (or Lego, for Danish sensibilities). Not everybody wants to, or can, do the same things (eg, join Nato or form a single currency). So a way of organising the EU has to be found that permits different permutations - which has been happening since Maastricht anyway.
The Hard Core: Europe as a fruit or vegetable, with a solid centre (northern apple or southern olive). This group of countries proceeds with rapid integration. The others catch up when they can. This is regarded as a Bad Thing by True Europeans ('everyone must go forward together') and by some Eurosceptics ('they will lock us out').
Concentric Circles: Europe as a target or an onion. The Eastern Europeans are in the outer ring, the Good Europeans in the centre, while the middle ring contains the uncertain, the unwilling and the incapable - somewhat like Dante's vision of hell.
Multi-track, Multi-speed: Europe is a giant motorway system. This is John Major's version, the British being fond of road metaphors. Everyone must share the traffic rules (free trade, open markets, fair competition) but beyond that, anything goes. Critics say: it would end progress towards a Union, dangerously weaken the European institutions and mean a return to the Europe of power politics and nation states. Supporters say: oh, good.Reuse content