Britain's 'red line' strategy is wearing thin as the referendum campaign stalls

The Government has observed strict radio silence on selling the case for Europe
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The Independent Online

Does Tony Blair have any idea how he is going to win his referendum on the European constitution? I ask this not as a rhetorical question, but really wanting to know the answer. If anyone in Downing Street does have a winning strategy I cannot spot it in the conduct of the Government since they committed themselves to a referendum. On the contrary, ever since they performed a gloriously inelegant U-turn over holding a referendum, the Government has behaved in a manner calculated to increase their prospects of losing it.

First there is the new, tougher approach to the negotiations on the constitution entering their endgame. There is a mystery here. The truth is that Britain had already done exceptionally well out of the negotiations.

Ministers had seen off attempts to expand the powers of the European Union that might have compromised our control of North Sea oil. They had struck a deal on the Charter of Rights on the basis that it would not change national law. They had blocked moves to make it easier to slip through amendments to the constitution.

More importantly, Britain had secured constitutional changes that ought to be welcomed, not opposed, by those who sit up at night terrified of a Federalist Europe. For the first time national parliaments will have a specific right to object to proposals by the Commission, with a presumption that objections by a third of them would block any directive.

Far from conferring more power on the Commission, the constitution will shift the balance of power towards the Council of Ministers, who represent the national democracies of Europe. The new, permanent President of the Council will be a powerful figure in Brussels representing the member states rather than the Commission.

If ministers are serious about winning a referendum they ought to be trumpeting these diplomatic successes. Instead they keep them under wraps as tightly as if the intelligence agencies had classified them as secret.

Meantime, ministers have flung themselves into the negotiations with renewed determination to defend every British "red line", a patriotic metaphor first used to describe the resolute stand of the 93rd Highlanders at Balaclava against the massed Russian cavalry. An uncomfortably apt analogy as the superannuated general staff in the Crimea kept referring to the enemy by habit as the French, despite the fact that France was their ally.

The reality is that most of our famous red lines are at no risk of being overrun, but by constantly proclaiming defiance in defence of British interests the Government creates an image of the draft constitution as a threat that must be resisted. It is hard to conceive how within a year or so they can perform a volte face and successfully urge the British public to welcome the same constitution which they are now so busily resisting.

Then there is the strange case of the campaign that has not barked. At the time of the decision to back a referendum Downing Street was busy briefing that Tony Blair relished the opportunity to sell the positive case for Europe. A referendum on the constitution was in fact a cunning plan to expose its opponents as covert supporters of British withdrawal.

Since then, the Government has observed strict radio silence on selling the case for Europe. We are in the closing stages of an election campaign for the European Parliament. There could not be a more relevant time to be advertising the case for positive engagement in the European institutions. But the campaign of the Government for the European elections opened with an attack on Michael Howard for being a closet Thatcherite, and followed up this week with a party political broadcast highlighting the ambitions of Oliver Letwin to slash public spending. These are legitimate political points, and may yet be central issues in the next election. They do not, though, add up to a positive case for British membership of the Union.

Ironically, the only people getting across a message about Europe in these elections are the UK Independence Party. The very title of Independence Party sums up the anachronistic chauvinism of their platform, but that is all the more reason not to leave them a clear field.

There have been only two well-reported speeches on Europe from Cabinet ministers and both portrayed Europe as a potential threat to the British culture of enterprise and the Government's predilection for deregulation. It has been left to exile figures such as Stephen Byers to make "the patriotic case" for Europe. There is indeed a powerful case to be made on grounds of national interest for Britain being a full member of the European Union. A clear majority of our exports are sold throughout the European single market. At any one time there are over 100,000 British citizens taking up their right of freedom of movement in other European countries, probably over a million since Britain became a member. The imminent Financial Services Action Plan will open up new opportunities on the Continent for the City which would not have been possible if Britain had not been a party to the negotiations.

Conversely, when Britain is not fully engaged our national interests are undermined. Since we chose to stay out of the euro, Britain's share of foreign investment has collapsed, and for the latest year was barely a quarter of its level before the launch of the euro. I am confident that one day Britain will join the single currency. My anxiety is that we will only do so when such costs of staying out have become too painfully visible and Britain will again be cast in the role of running to catch up on European initiatives taken by others.

Yet focusing on a narrow calculation of the national interest would be a mistake. The balance sheet of any such calculation is overwhelmingly positive, but that is not the big picture. The real value of a political union as broad as the European continent is that it gives all its members a position of strength to which none could ever aspire on their own.

The European Union is a logical and successful response to the lengthening agenda of issues which can only be delivered on the domestic scene by agreement on the international stage. From bargaining in the World Trade Organisation on the rules under which we export, to negotiations in the Kyoto process to halt global warming, the common front of the European Union gives each of us greater leverage to secure our objectives. The perpetual complaint of the Eurosceptics about loss of sovereignty ignores the reality that Britain would be weaker in the world, not stronger, if we stood alone.

Yet this strategic case for Europe is rarely heard. This is a disastrous failure of political leadership that is allowing the opponents of Europe to set the terms of debate. What makes it all the more disappointing is that Tony Blair began as the most pro-European Prime Minister for a generation. If he does not soon fulfil his promise to convince the public of the case for membership, he may end as the Prime Minister under whom Britain gained influence in Europe but Europe lost support in Britain.