It's a fair bet that the European embassies across London have been deluged recently with cables from their foreign ministries demanding to know just where British policy is headed. Are they to take seriously David Miliband's dramatic declaration of faith in the European Union as the repository of Britain's attentions and ambitions and what are they to make of the Conservative Party's constant anti-European rhetoric and its promise to keep bashing away even if the Lisbon treaty is signed?
I sympathise with them. They can't know. We in the media certainly don't know and I suspect none of the politicians, least of all the Tory front bench, seriously understand just what British European policy will be after the next election. My only advice to the ambassadors and their governments is to keep calm and remember two things. One is that Europe doesn't loom nearly as large in the British debate as the current chatter over the presidency would suggest. And the second point is that Britain is now in election mode. There is nothing, nothing at all, which is not said or done without the vote in mind.
If David Miliband is now making much of his European credentials, it is because he senses that the Conservatives are vulnerable on the issue and that he himself has a chance to look more statesmanlike. And so with the Tories. If they oppose Tony Blair's suggested appointment as the new president of the EU it's not just because they fear his presence in Brussels but because they sense that the appointment would not gain any votes back here. In many ways it would suit a Conservative government to have Blair across the water. They could constantly play on the differences. It just doesn't suit them to say so.
That's no cause for the Continent to despair of Britain's attitude to Europe. True, it's been only half-engaged this last decade. But it's not anti-European as such. UKIP, the BNP and others have gained traction as a result of the turn-off from the major parties but there is no real evidence that their vote is either going up that much or that it is Brussels which is driving the anger. David Cameron may have his problems with his party on this score (he does) but, as far as the public is concerned, an anti-European stance is not a critical vote winner..
If there is a change in government next year David Cameron will have a fair room to manoeuvre on the European issue so long as he looks as if he's playing the nationalist card in Brussels (which he will). The tone of a Labour government, if returned, will undoubtedly be more positive, but when it comes to the more contentious issues of joining the euro, financial regulation, Turkey's candidature and the Common Agricultural Policy, you'd have to be very naïve indeed to take David Miliband's speech this week as signalling a great change of approach.
Which is the nub of the question. The Lisbon Treaty has had a hard birth and there is a tendency, on the Continent as here, to regard its signing as the end of the story. It isn't. It is just the beginning.
Where the EU goes from here, towards greater integration or greater enlargement, has still to be settled – two-speed, multi-speed or all as one. If President Sarkozy and Chancellor Merkel want to press forward from the Lisbon base (as I think they do) to a more integrated unit, then Britain is going to have to make up its mind as to what it sees as a future Europe. Neither main party has even begun to do so.
As for the presidency, it's really a sideshow. President Sarkozy, and most British commentators, have presented it as a choice between an organiser behind the scenes or a front man of celebrity status. This is the last way the choice should be made. To pick either a grey man such as Jean-Claude Juncker or a plausible rogue from a discredited era as Tony Blair would be wrong. It just smacks – and on this William Hague is unfortunately right – of all that is worst about the backroom dealings of the EU.
Europe's problem is not how it presents itself to the outside world, it is how little support it has amonggst its own people. On that score what it needs is a figure from a smaller country, preferably a woman, who can inspire its citizens with the belief that the EU's future is theirs not with a bunch of power brokers meeting behind closed doors as Brown, Merkel and Sarkozy did last night. Someone like Mary Robinson, in fact.Reuse content