Adrian Hamilton: Why Blair no longer seeks a legacy in Europe

The Hampton Court participants would be better employed having a mediaeval joust
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You would have thought people would have learnt this by now, especially the Euro MPs who were so comprehensively seduced by the British Prime Minister last June into believing the UK was now back at the heart of European politics with a true reformist agenda, only to see nothing develop at all since.

So here we are with the PM yesterday back in Strasbourg, saying the same things as last time, to the same chorus of commentators proclaiming his determination to "leave a legacy in Europe", his courage in taking on the "old Europe" of the French and his freshness in forcing Europe to face up to the global challenges of the 21st century.

The reality? Today's summit at Hampton Court to address the need for "blue-sky thinking" has been cut back from two days to one; there will be no dinner to round it off and the British, as hosts, have said it will not be allowed to discuss any of the more contentious subjects such as the EU budget or the global trade talks. On that basis, the participants would be better employed having a mock mediaeval joust with Chirac acting Francois I and Blair Henry VIII at the Field of the Cloth of Gold with the fountains pouring wine.

At least it would excite some interest from a European citizenry profoundly turned off by the European Union and its summitry. So why is it that politicians and people keep getting taken in by Tony Blair?

It's partly his style, that combination of apparent frankness and casual ease which stands in such contrast to the usual boring and pompous pronouncements of European leaders. It is also - and his critics are apt to forget this - that he has an uncanny ability to put his finger on a mood and articulate it.

There is a feeling across Europe that the project is foundering and needs to face up to the challenges of the future. But if Tony Blair really wanted to take the lead on this issue, to change the culture of Europe as his "legacy", then he would have to develop a plan, construct alliances and convince the public that it was to their benefit.

He hasn't tried to do any of that. British officials have not been entirely inactive. The Foreign Office and Number 10 have been hard at work, particularly with the French, in searching for some kind of compromise over the EU budget, to ensure that accession talks with Turkey did begin and to try to work for a common position on trade issues. But it was not that which Tony Blair promised in June. Nor is it what the Hampton Court summit was supposed to achieve. On that promise the Prime Minister has not just failed to deliver, he hasn't even tried.

And for two simple reasons. One is that he feels the British just aren't behind the European Union at this time. They've lost interest and any faint enthusiasm has been wiped away by the Continent's economic woes.

The second reason is that Blair knows there simply isn't the consensus in Europe for any grand new social and economic plan along the lines he laid out again yesterday. Right across Europe, the voters have lost confidence in European institutions. People may want to regain economic momentum, but not at the expense of labour protection and totally free competition.

In the wake of the French and Dutch rejection of the new constitution, governments have turned in on themselves. For Angela Merkel in Germany, and the new Polish president in Warsaw as much as President Chirac in Paris, there are no votes in proclaiming the European cause.

Britain in that sense is just part of the trend and Blair no different than most of his colleagues, only he seemed to promise more.

It's a picture unlikely to be altered by Gordon Brown, or David Cameron, in this country, nor Sarkozy or anyone else in Europe. But it's not catastrophic. Given some hard graft, a bit of Blair charm towards the end, and a lot of sucking up to France in the meantime (which we appear to be doing) there is no reason why the British can't end their presidency with some kind of agreement on the budget and trade in December.

The European Union will toddle on. The problem for those of us who believe in it, is how to reinvigorate. And, for that, Europe's leaders need not embark on grand plans and high rhetoric which none of them truly subscribe to. They need to concentrate on the specific issues around which they can rally their publics - the environment, bird flu, foreign aid and greater accountability of institutions. Precisely the opposite, in fact, to what today's Hampton Court conference is all about.