Adrian Hamilton: So what do our party leaders think about Europe?

It is becoming clear that, without a new agreement, the EU is going to grind to a halt
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The Independent Online

It is probably only the extreme Euronerds who will remember, but this week - yesterday to be exact - saw the moment at which the European Constitution was supposed to have started. It never got off the ground, of course, killed in infancy by the electorates of France and the Netherlands, both of whom rejected it decisively in referenda.

Only that isn't the end of the story, not by a long chalk. It is not in the nature of institutions to wither away of their own accord, nor is it in the nature of politicians to accept that their electorates know better than them.

Deep in the bowels of Brussels Jose Manuel Barroso, president of the Commission, has been busily drawing up plans for a new constitutional plan - arrangement, treaty, programme, call it what you will. In Berlin Angela Merkel, Chancellor of a Germany that will be holding the rotating presidency in the first half of next year, has reconfirmed Germany's commitment to a new constitution to co-incide with the 50th anniversary of the signing of the original Treaty of Rome.

In Paris, where the presidency will end up in the second half of 2008, presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy has laid out his plans for a two-stage reformation of Europe, the first involving a "mini-treaty" next year and the second a grand conference in 2009 in time for the next Euro-elections.

The normal reaction in Britain to this kind of development is for the Euro-enthusiasts to rush around saying "we've got to do something or we'll be left again on the margins" and for the Euro-doubters (the majority) to point delightedly to just how fractured and over-zealous are the actions of our old rivals across the Channel.

You don't have to be a Jesuit to argue that these two claims are not necessarily incompatible. Europe is indeed drifting all over the place at the moment. The economic resurgence, although nascent, is still too fragile to provide it with the kind of growth that fuelled integration in the past. Merkel in Germany, Chirac in France and Prodi in Italy have all failed to find the political consensus or popular support they need to pursue economic reform.

The new entrants, particularly Poland and Hungary, have failed to submerge their traditional nationalism into regional loyalty. Indeed just the opposite has occurred. There is a sense that EU enlargement has reached its limit and that this limit should be drawn before Turkey and Croatia become members.

For all the talk of new beginnings and revived constitutions, there is simply too much underlying disagreement on fundamentals such as the agricultural budget, immigration, national vetoes and the allocation of commissioners for even a "mini-constitution" to be approved.

On the other hand it is becoming increasingly clear that, without some new agreement at the very least on decision making if not the broader issues of trade, immigration and energy, the Union is going to grind to a halt. Although no one likes to say so, the addition of Bulgaria and Romania has made the Union ungovernable. At 27 members, even the most basic decisions as to who is to get the commission jobs can't be made. In terms of economic and social criteria, the two new arrivals should never have been allowed in - or certainly not so early.

Something is going to have to be sorted out, and relatively soon. It may be that the EU has to give up its larger dreams and proceed on the basis of ad hoc groupings, on defence, the euro or energy policy. It could be that its only route forward is through a multi-speed Europe in which an inner core moves ahead of the rest.

It is possible that it all has to slow to the speed of the slowest in order to keep everybody on board. Or it may be that Europe needs, as the Liberal Democrat MEP Andrew Duffy (practically the only Briton to be applying his mind to this problem at all), argues, Europe has to take a deep breath and jump in even deeper than the original constitutional treaty would have allowed.

You can talk, as some do, of a grand new concordat that exchanges budget reform for vetoes, majority voting for tax harmonisation, and thus gets even the sceptics such as Gordon Brown on board. Or you can seek an accommodation which allows people to go their own way. But stand still Europe won't.

The problem for Britain is not so much that we will be left behind. We're always the laggard in Europe and, given our politics, are always likely to be. It is, what do we want to happen?

On that we get no flicker of an answer - not from a David Cameron who is instinctively against Europe altogether, nor from Gordon Brown, who doesn't like or wish to understand it, nor from a Parliament that seems determined not to discuss any big or contentious issue at all.