Adrian Hamilton: Empty gestures on the European stage

Neither Brown nor Cameron would make a move that looked like integration

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President Obama doesn't do idle chat. When he speaks to foreign leaders – unlike his predecessor, George W Bush – he likes the conversation to have a purpose. Not for him the bonding exchange or the photo opportunity. Which is why he seems to prefer Angela Merkel to most other European leaders. And why he has so publicly turned down the EU's invitation to a summit in Madrid. Call it a snub if you like, but the simpler explanation is that he simply saw no point in it.

And he is right. Just what was the purpose of the summit? It was called by Spain's Jose Luis Zapatero largely with the aim of pre-empting the newly appointed full-time President of Europe, Herman von Rompuy, from doing the same.

Well, say Europe's defenders in excuse, you're bound to have these kind of turf battles in a settling-in period between the old system of rotating national presidencies and the new post-Lisbon world of a single, permanent presidency. Perhaps, although that doesn't say much for the understanding of Europe's leaders of just what is implied by a Lisbon treaty they had all signed up to as the path to tomorrow.

But then think what happened at the last European summit Obama attended – in Prague last year, hosted by a Czech government which had just fallen, and without an agenda worth the paper it was summarised on. The world has become too serious a place for premiers to glide from summit to summit in armour-plated cars solely for the purposes of being seen to be at them.

Not that you would know it from the behaviour of most of Europe's leaders, including our own dear Prime Minister. Ever since Gordon Brown sniffed the air and smelt electoral cordite he has been positively frenetic in his efforts to hold centre stage in world affairs, flying to conferences on economics and the environment there and holding meetings on Afghanistan and Yemen here. Whether these meetings achieve anything practical is beside the point.......... 

If Angela Merkel, Nicolas Sarkozy and Zapatero are really beating a path to our door over the coming months to fly the flag for the British Prime Minister, he would of course be delighted. Indeed I wouldn't be surprised if No 10 didn't deliberately spin regular meetings as support for Brown and disapproval of the Tory leader.

But it is an odd choice of tactic, nonetheless. Gordon Brown doesn't care about Europe. Never has. Never will. While Tony Blair hugged America close, he also sought favour in Europe, not least because he was arrogant (or deluded) enough to believe that he could bestride every part of the globe like a colossus.

Brown has always been enamoured of the US, constantly reading up on its politics and its power, and taken Europe as a sideshow, arriving late for its meetings and never staying past their time. He now likes the stage but there isn't the faintest evidence that he believes in Europe's development as an integrated whole or Britain's part in it.

In that sense, there isn't much difference between him and Cameron, whichever was in power. Both party leaders will use Europe for what they think they can get out of it, in terms of their relations with the main players, not as members of a board urging on the development of the company as a whole – which is how the treaty of Lisbon envisages it. And neither leader will do anything that can be seen as a move towards integration or loss of sovereignty.

Cameron is more trammelled by a party that won't allow him to make any real concessions to Europe. He has also made life immensely more difficult for himself by his rhetoric and his choice of allies in the European Parliament. But it would be foolish for the Europeans to think Brown will be any more federalist or even confederalist on issues of substance. Indeed, in some ways – if you look to policy on Afghanistan or economic co-ordination – Brown is keener to hold tight to the Americans than Cameron and his team are.

Committed Europeans may not like this but they are hardly offering an attractive alternative in return. The Lisbon treaty was meant to draw together the greater union of 27 (and more) with a single voice in the world and a more co-ordinated, efficient means of working within. So far it has achieved neither.

The choice of new permanent President and Foreign Secretary ended in a classic stitch-up between the main players on purely party grounds. In doing so, those players were making sure that common representatives remained no more than their functionaries. As for the concepts of greater powers for parliament, greater scrutiny of the Brussels executive and more consensual decision-making, you can believe that when you see it. There's no indication of it to date.

Yet the worst response to Obama's so-called "snub" has been the immediate one – the cry of despair that Europe lacks presence on the world stage, that it cannot provide the single answering voice when Washington, or China or whoever calls.

That is the dream of European politicians. There is no evidence that the people, as members of the Union, are dreaming of greater power abroad by acting as one. What they want is more effective responses to the challenges within – the recession, climate change, jobs, terror and security.

And that is where Britain should be throwing its weight and projecting its hopes. They are all issues – even the contentious problem of how to regulate the financial markets and the future of defence (viz yesterday's green paper) – are better dealt with as a group across the full membership. Europe is still a project in the making. There are plenty of opportunities, and potential allies, in taking a view on policy as our interests dictate. A suspicious approach need not be an unconstructive one.

The real lesson of Obama for Britain is that, in pursuit of conversations that matter, the new President is no longer interested in dealing with "special relationships" any more than unions which can't get their act together. Washington wants ad-hoc alliances as they suit America's interests. If we want influence, we will have to find it in Europe. And we – Gordon Brown as much as David Cameron – are going to have to start to look as if we believe in it.

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