Denis MacShane: Europe: the issue that dare not speak its name

Once again we risk being left behind, reacting to the ideas shaped in other EU capitals

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Thirty-five years ago I attended my first Labour Party conference. It was a one-day affair to decide Labour's attitude to Europe. The answer was overwhelming. Labour, in the words of Jim Callaghan, had a simple reply to the European question: "Non, merci beaucoup" said Sunny Jim as Labour MPs and union leaders roared out their disdain for the European Community into which Ted Heath proposed to lead Britain.

Today it is David Cameron's Conservatives who have picked up the torch of anti-Europeanism. But to my surprise, Gordon Brown, in a wide-ranging and embrace-all speech, did not mention even the word Europe. We still have to hear what Tony Blair, the Prime Minister, says today, but will his legacy of expunging at least formal Eurosceptism from Labour's DNA survive his departure from office?

This week and next it looks as if Britain's political class is in denial, believing that if it speaks, sees and hears no Europe the problem will go away. The defeat of the constitution and the end of euro entry as possible politics have persuaded the Westminster-Whitehall establishment that Europe has evaporated as a political issue.

This complacency is about to be shattered. In Paris, Berlin and Rome new leaders are emerging with serious thought-out proposals to take European construction forward.

Take France. In an important fully fleshed speech in Brussels earlier this month Nicolas Sarkozy, the European and American right's hopeful to succeed Jacques Chirac as President of France, called for a new "mini-treaty" that would take some ideas from the defunct constitution, such as a standing president for the European Council. Sarkozy also called for an EU Foreign Minister and diplomatic service. More controversially, Sarkozy said such a treaty should be ratified by national parliaments, not by referendums.

Knee-jerk Tory spokesmen were quick off the mark to denounce their fellow rightist in France. They are wrong. What no one has noticed in London is that Europe needs a new treaty by 2009. Under existing treaties, Peter Mandelson may be Britain's last EU commissioner, as big countries will no longer be guaranteed a seat at the Commission. Sarkozy wants France to have a French commissioner in Brussels, but for this to happen a new treaty in 2009 will be needed.

The one EU policy that Conservatives do support is EU membership for Turkey. However this cannot happen without a new EU constitutional treaty to write new rules to cater for Turkish MEPs and Turkey's voting right.

Meanwhile in Berlin, Chancellor Angela Merkel says that when Germany takes over the six-month EU presidency in January she will seek to breathe life into the constitution and add a reference to Christianity to please the Pope.

From Rome, Italy's new Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, says that it is time to get a new constitutional project under way as part of the 50th anniversary celebrations of the 1957 founding Treaty of Rome.

Italy's new ruling Democratic Party is a full fusion of former Communists, socialists and liberals, creating Europe's first 21st-century party based on combining the left and liberal traditions and cultures of 19th- and 20th-century politics. What unites them is a powerful Europeanism. Seen from Rome, the EU is not a threat but a guarantee of Italy's modernity and full status as a leading European nation.

The EU Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, goes from meeting to meeting in Brussels pleading for more economic liberalisation. But the real decisions are taken in EU capitals, not Brussels. Every economic leap forward has been preceded by a political agreement expressed in a new treaty, such as those promoted by Margaret Thatcher on the single market, by François Mitterrand and Helmut Kohl to bring in the euro, and by Tony Blair to allow enlargement to east Europe and the Balkans. Political agreement followed by economic development has been an EU rule since 1957.

Another new treaty is generating itself into existence unnoticed by a British political-media class that wishes Europe would remain a sleeping non-beauty unable to be kissed into life. Once again Britain risks being left behind and, as in the past, reacting defensively with nervous irritation to the ideas shaped in other EU capitals.

Given that Europe is the only region of globalisation where there is some space for social and environmental politics as well as a voice distinct and separate from Washington, it is odd that Labour has gone to sleep on Europe. When the next round of proposals emerges it will be too late.

The writer was Europe minister, 2002-2005. His biography of Edward Heath will be published in October

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