Adrian Hamilton: We can ignore Europe but we cannot avoid it

The EU will not reconnect with its citizens through fine phrases. It has had too many of those
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One of the best pieces of advice I was given as a young journalist came from an old Whitehall hand. "Don't expect many revelations when you meet people in power," he said, "but what you do learn is what is on their mind."

Judged by that criteria, the public - the last people on politicians' minds at the moment - are in for a pretty dismal time. Tony Blair says his three priorities for staying on are: pensions, reform and nuclear power. Reform we all know about. It's a mantra that means a lot or nothing at all depending on the moment. But pensions and nuclear power? These are essentially non-partisan issues which should, in any reasonable democratic society, be debated across party lines. If Blair is going to make them tests of strength with his Chancellor, then the likelihood of sensible decisions being made is remote.

But then, what to make of Gordon Brown's dual priorities, repeated throughout a week of interviews: renewal and security? Renewal is a waffle word like reform, meaning whatever you want it to mean. But security? Are we now to see a new authoritarianism from our Chancellor or is it a shameless plea for support from the right-wing press? If it does mean anything, it poses the depressing prospect of a bidding contest between Brown and Blair and the Tories for who can batter human rights the hardest.

But then the statements of politicians are also interesting for what is not on their minds as much as for what is. And the biggest invisible now is clearly Europe. There was a brief flurry when it looked as if the Prime Minister was appointing a European Secretary of State of Cabinet ranking in Geoffrey Hoon. But this turned out to be a figment of Hoon's limited imagination to cover up the fact of his demotion back to a rank he held before.

This tells us something of the low regard with which European issues are regarded by Blair, who seems to have told Margaret Beckett, the new Foreign Secretary, that the main reason for choosing her was to promote the environment - a truly bizarre definition of the Foreign Secretary's role and one that suggests that appearances are all that matter on this front.

There are no prizes for guessing why Europe figures so low on the Government's agenda. The public is not interested, the opposition can make hay with it and the politics within Europe are in a near total mess since the French and Dutch voted against the constitution.

This week, in case you missed it, saw the celebration of Europe Day, the anniversary of Robert Schuman's historic declaration of a European community. It's also the week when the European Commission presented its thoughts on how to revive the moribund constitution.

It won't get anywhere. Even the Commission knows it, in the certain knowledge that it won't be before the Germans take over the presidency in the first half of next year and the French hold their presidentials in the second half before anything can move. In the meantime, it is full of thoughts of declarations of moral purpose to revive public confidence in the union.

It is probably wasting its time on that as well. The European Union is not going to reconnect with its citizens through fine phrases and abstract expressions. It has had too many of those already. It will do so through actual policies.

And that is where you cannot - and certainly shouldn't - ignore the Union, as the Prime Minister, and his Chancellor even more, are doing. The simple point about the EU is that, on most of the major issues which affect citizens today - the environment, security, energy, economic growth, trade negotiations and monopoly regulation - the European context is the only one that makes any sense.

You can pretend that a country such as Britain can act on its own to combat global warming, you can behave as if the problems of globalisation and outsourcing were unique to this country and the potential for growth was something that could be considered in isolation from what happens on the Continent, you can proceed as if rooting out fundamentalist cells is a purely national exercise, but no one in their right mind believes this.

Even if the constitution were not there as a problem and the commission did not exist, the fact is that we would have to be discussing all these problems with our European allies as a group and as an economic entity.

Nor, with the political paralysis gripping the major powers of Europe, can we afford to ignore events on the Continent. Over the coming months, there is the issue of whether to admit Bulgaria and Romania into the union. Further afield there is the question of what to do about the Ukraine, Serbia and other nations for whom the hope of accession is a major inducement to their politics.

Europe has to decide what to do about gas imports, the next round of trade negotiation after Doha and whether to ease the stability and growth pact governing economic discipline. No one would pretend that the union is operating any of these policy issues well. Its foreign policy at the moment is a disaster and its economic controls a mess.

But to decry them does not obviate the need for them. Yesterday, Tony Blair made much of the need to debate policy rather than personalities. But if that is the case, the starting point should be a real discussion of Europe. He can afford to be honest. After all, he isn't facing re-election.