Andrew Grice: The Week in Politics

Spectre of Europe casts scary new shadow
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The Independent Online

Whisper it softly: this year, support for the European Union in Britain reached its highest level since 1994, with 42 per cent of people saying membership is a good thing. But Europhiles should not celebrate just yet: the reason for the surge is probably that the EU has been out of the headlines in our Eurosceptic-dominated press.

Normal service will resume shortly. When Germany takes over the EU's rotating chairmanship on 1 January, it plans to resuscitate the apparently dead EU constitution. The blueprint was put in the deep freeze last year after France and the Netherlands rejected it in a referendum, saving Tony Blair from a possible defeat in the vote he had rashly promised the British people.

At a two-day summit in Brussels which ended yesterday, a clear majority of the 25 EU leaders said the masterplan should be revived, either in full or part. Some, including Germany, want a decision reached within 12 months. The moves could have big implications for British politics, and create a big headache for both Gordon Brown and David Cameron. Neither man wants to see Europe at the top of the agenda for the next election.

Even without the constitution on the table, Mr Brown has a dilemma over how to play Europe. While he sees himself as a "pro-European realist", his arrival as Prime Minister is regarded with trepidation by some EU leaders. His performances at meetings of EU finance ministers lead them to believe he will be less "pro-European" than Tony Blair.

The Prime Minister has failed to live up to the great expectations of him in Europe. He upset fellow leaders by keeping Britain out of the euro and backing America over Iraq. But he has just about kept Britain at the top table by cutting deals and accepting compromises.

Mr Brown might intend to follow suit, since being Prime Minister is different to being Chancellor. He would not want Britain banished to the EU's fringes. He might be tempted to "go pro" in the hope of creating one of his much-loved "dividing lines", portraying Mr Cameron's party as the "same old Tories".

That might work if the constitution were still in its box. But its revival might demolish another plank of Mr Brown's strategy - wooing the right-wing press to boost his election prospects. As things stand, Mr Brown has a good chance of retaining the support of The Sun, which has shone on Labour since 1997. But if he backed what Rupert Murdoch's paper would describe as a "wicked plot to transfer more power to Brussels", he might be in trouble.

It wouldn't be easy for Mr Brown to oppose the constitution since the Government signed up to it. It is likely to return as a "mini-treaty" without the over-hyped, visionary statements in the rejected version. The new one will probably be based on sensible reforms to streamline a decision-making process which will become even more cumbersome when Bulgaria and Romania join next month. That would make it even harder for Britain to reject it.

Another dilemma is whether to hold a referendum. Mr Brown could describe a "mini-treaty" as a "tidying-up exercise" but the Eurosceptic press would love a referendum and would not let him easily off the hook. What would the Chancellor do if it came to the crunch? Probably what Mr Blair did: putting re-election hopes before pro-Europeanism.

Mr Brown's problems will not bring Mr Cameron much comfort. He knows that divisions over Europe destabilised the Thatcher and Major governments. He has downplayed Europe because he judges it is not the public's number one priority. But he knows that Tory passions still run high: when a photograph of Sir Edward Heath, the man who took Britain into the EU, was displayed at the Tory conference in October, the audience hissed.

Mr Cameron also knows that playing the old Tory tunes on Europe may undermine changes to the party's image. When he visited Brussels last week, European Commission officials expected a hardened Eurosceptic following his decision to pull Tory MEPs out of the mainstream centre-right group in the European Parliament, the European People's Party, which upset its star player - Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor.

In fact, Mr Cameron was much more open-minded than the officials expected. He got on well with Jose Manuel Barroso, the Commission president, and praised the Commission after his talks. The Tory leader has realised the limitations of EU-bashing. He has acknowledged the EU has an important role in combating climate change: after all, the problem does not stop at Calais. Yet Mr Cameron is opposed to ceding any more decision-making powers to the EU and to reviving the constitution. He might be tempted to back a "mini-treaty" but knows that could provoke a civil war in his own party - and a declaration of war by the Tory-leaning newspapers who don't like Project Cameron anyway. So, like Mr Brown, he might play safe, and put the party's interests before his own instincts.

Mr Brown and Mr Cameron have more in common than they would admit. Despite their best efforts to shake it off, the European ghost will return to haunt both of them before the next election.

a.grice@independent.co.uk

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