A vacuum at the heart of Europe

Both sides of the Euro-debate are losing the argument and failing to move the continent's citizens; Too much that Europe does is cut off and too little is genuinely enabling

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This week two of the ablest politicians on each side of the Euro- debate are on the march. Tomorrow, John Redwood's new Euro-sceptic think tank, the Conservative 2000 Foundation, will be opening for business and all this month Robin Cook is touring the country promoting New Labour's new Euro-policy.

But will there be any takers? Will either of them find an army waiting to be mobilised? I rather doubt it. For the striking thing about the Euro- debate is that both sides are losing the argument simultaneously. At the moment the most visible losers are the pro-Europeans. Although half the British public is sprawled over the beaches of Greece and Spain, and half the British political elite is lounging in the Dordogne enjoying their claret and roast duck, enthusiasm for Europe as a political venture is becalmed. A majority still sees the EU as a good rather than a bad thing (39 per cent vs 27 per cent, according to Gallup last month), but according to Henley, the proportion of Britons believing that a united Europe is essential to prosperity is down from 42 per cent to less than a quarter. Half the British think that European institutions are too powerful, and fewer than a quarter think the European Parliament should have more power.

Since similar declines can be found right across Europe, it is easy to see the attraction of a sceptical position which says that, while leaving the single market intact, we should now return to the safe home of the nation state, to history and belonging, and forget about fantasies of building a common identity out of a patchwork of incompatibility. This seems to be the position that Jacques Chirac is moving towards. He may have said on the day of his election that France would be the "motor of the European Union", but the motor is at best ticking over.

Unfortunately this position doesn't stack up any better than Europhilia. For although attachment to Europe is waning, attachment to the nation state is waning in tandem. You might expect the two to be inversely related: that more Europeanness would mean less Britishness (or Frenchness) and vice versa. In fact this isn't so. In Britain, national attachment has steadily fallen with each successive generation and more than half of young voters say they don't identify with Britain, want to emigrate and won't buy British goods. For this generation, the Euro-sceptic view that the monarchy and Parliament are somehow sacred looks a bit daft, more Dad's Army than the Battle of Britain. In other countries too there has been no return to any simple nationalism (look for example at the French public's opposition to testing in Mururoa.)

The result of these twin detachments, the one from the nation, the second from Europe, is an extraordinary political vacuum, a gaping hole. It means that neither side of the debate can project a remotely convincing account of where Europe will go and why. The 'Europe des Patries' of the sceptics means accepting almost certain policy failure on new Bosnias, and on issues such as the environment. It entails a Canute-like pretence that we can ignore the pressures to interdependence and globalisation.

Yet the pro-European argument is equally unconvincing. It now seems to boil down to faith that the steady integration of the core countries will be enough to persuade others to follow. But it's quite possible that the opposite will be the case, and that for countries like Britain and Spain there will be greater advantages to be gained from playing against the centre, with lower exchange rates and perhaps less generous social rules.

Moreover, the pro-Europeans now face a bigger credibility gap. Their "my continent right or wrong" stance means that they have failed to notice just how little their cherished institutions have actually improved life for most European citizens. Worse, they fall silent when European institutions meddle unnecessarily in national decisions (as with their various interventions in the UK labour market,) in breach of every conceivable definition of subsidiarity.

The vacuum means that there is no representation for the many millions of (mainly younger) Europeans who are more likely to speak another language, and to have travelled, worked or studied in another European country, but who are instinctively sceptical of big, top-down, self-serving institutions. For them Jacques Delors' replacement by Jacques Santer has simply replaced an overzealous leadership with no leadership at all. It means that there is now no one of sufficient stature to acknowledge just how big a mistake Maastricht was, with its arcane sub-clauses and its stress on money and monetarism (of all things) as the road to salvation, or to set out a 10- or 20-year programme for change that is both credible and attractive.

For the right the problem is ambivalence about the nation state. For the left (especially the French and German socialists) the problem is that their gamble on Europe as the vehicle for modernisation has so misfired that 40 per cent of Europeans on low incomes now believe (not without good reason) that integration has been responsible for increasing unemployment in their communities.

It would be easy simply to want to walk away from the European issue altogether, and there are certainly signs of waning interest. The EU's love of acronyms and conferences, of meaningless statements and irrelevant directives, is enough to alienate most people. But Europe does still stand for profoundly important values - for democracy and reason, co-operation and peace, open borders and free trade. Moreover it is hard to see any alternative to pooling sovereignty if Europe is to have a better 21st century than the one that is coming to an end - even if that does mean jettisoning some comfortingly familiar 19th century ideas of sovereignty.

The problems become apparent, however, as soon as you look at any specific area. Take, for example, security, which is set to become far more important not only in the wake of abject failure in Bosnia, but also in advance of new dangers from a revived Russia. Everyone knows that without some kind of majority voting, albeit perhaps with special arrangements for those few nations with the capacity to act militarily, which still in effect means France and Britain, coherence is bound to remain elusive. Yet realpolitik makes it hard to imagine a British prime minister allowing British troops to be deployed without a British veto.

This is the heart of the matter. For Europe to evolve, power has to be shared (and Germany's foreign minister, Klaus Kinkel, is wrong, if understandable, in saying that 1996 should involve no further passage of power to the EU). But at present Europe's institutions don't deserve any more power. Too much that they do with vigour is unjustifiable, and too much that really needs to be done is flunked. Too much that they do is secretive, cut off from their citizens and intrusive, and too little is open and genuinely enabling. That's the Catch-22. It is the reason why both sides of the argument are managing to lose simultaneously.

And it is why, unless Europe's leaders are prepared to act with enough vigour to restore legitimacy to their institutions, the vacuum will remain unfilled and ours will remain a continent without direction.

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