Mr Blair's new, practical plans for Europe's future

'When an official complained that tomorrow's speech was Gaullist, Blair replied: "De Gaulle? Top name" '
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The Independent Online

To watch the Tories in Bournemouth is to watch a party, which for all its apparent recovery, does not, deep down, believe it can win. How else to explain the brutally clear exposure, so soon before an election, of the contradiction between Portillo's new inclusivism and Ann Widdecombe's electorally suicidal social authoritarianism?

To watch the Tories in Bournemouth is to watch a party, which for all its apparent recovery, does not, deep down, believe it can win. How else to explain the brutally clear exposure, so soon before an election, of the contradiction between Portillo's new inclusivism and Ann Widdecombe's electorally suicidal social authoritarianism?

This may be relevant to a post-election leadership contest both protagonists no doubt yearn for after an election defeat. It has nothing to do with reversing the prospect of that defeat. Time, therefore, to return to a party which does intend to govern next time. And no issue presses down on it more heavily than Europe.

The widespread assumption in Bournemouth, shared by a surprising number of commentators, is that the Danish No to a single currency is a death blow to prospects of an early referendum on British euro-entry. Denmark does remind all those in favour of joining, including Tony Blair, of just how difficult it will prove to win a referendum. It will strengthen the arguments of those, like Gordon Brown, who have been arguing against making the euro central to the election debate. Michael Portillo's widely reported speech was as light on hard economics as any by a chief Treasury spokesman in any party in recent years. But its passage on the euro was instructive.

Never mind that the rhetoric about the Irish being prevented from fighting inflation by a European-imposed interest rate had been clinically demolished by Ken Clarke an hour or so earlier; as Clarke pointed out, it is up to the Irish government to raise some of its outstandingly low taxation levels if it wants to curb inflation. Never mind, either, that Portillo's resounding cry that euro membership prevents the elector from voting for an interest-rate policy is blithely uttered by a shadow Chancellor committed to an independent Bank of England. The speech nevertheless struck a chord that will resonate loudly in any future anti-euro campaign.

But the Bournemouth assumption misses two key points. First, the real variables which will determine a British decision are much more potent than a Danish vote which by 2002 will be a distant memory. The euro's strength, the size of Blair's majority, the prospects for inward investment; the enigma of what the British Chancellor really wants.

Second, several of the reasons why the Danes voted No, will not apply to Britain. Even had the euro not looked like a sick currency at the singularly ill-chosen moment of Denmark's decision, it would have been hard to mount a potent economic case for full entry since the krone is already pegged to the euro. And the argument that euro-zone membership confers influence is much less certain for small countries like Denmark than large ones like Britain.

A third reason for the Danish No vote, however, is highly relevant to Britain, not to mention the rest of Europe. The sense that the EU's institutions are increasingly remote, that decisions affecting the lives of citizens are made by unaccountable bodies, that there is, in short, a democratic deficit in the way the EU conceives, let alone implements, its purpose, can no longer be sensibly ignored by those who fight the European cause. In that sense, the Danish vote last week affords Tony Blair an opportunity rather than a threat when he makes tomorrow in Warsaw what will surely be the most important European speech of his premiership.

Taking as his starting point the primary importance of enlarging the EU to the east, he will go back to fundamentals. In a vision which depicts the member states as rightly and enthusiastically pooling elements of sovereignty in their common interests, rather than as subordinates to an embryo European state, he will pose the question of what is Europe for. What, in effect, should be the remit which the member states willingly confer on it?

This vision is far-reaching, European and practical. Blair is likely to acknowledge, for example, the continental passions engaged by the draft European charter of human rights. But he may muse on whether the peoples of Europe might have been more heartened by clear common progress in the fight against organised crime.

More widely, however, the vision invites an answer to the key question of what needs to be done by the EU and what is best left to member states. To Blair - and to Jacques Chirac and Joschka Fischer - the Council of Ministers, and not the unelected, supranational Commission is the EU's democratic core. He may float the idea of fortnightly meetings of specific European ministers to direct the work of the Commission. While careful not to suggest it is the whole answer, Blair will support the idea for an upper house for the European Parliament drawn from national MPs, who will be charged with helping to define what is Europe's and what the member states'. Because they will be drawn from national parliaments the presumption is that they will have a tendency to prevent Europe interfering, in Lord Hurd's phrase, in the nooks and crannies of ordinary life.

For the one certainty is that the hopes invested in the Seventies in direct elections to the European Parliament have been resoundingly disappointed. More British citizens voted for the winner in Big Brother than in the Euro elections - something which puts the constant boasts in Bournemouth yesterday about the Tories' "victory" in those elections in a proper perspective. Blair's determination to stress tomorrow that the nation state remains the democratic cornerstone of the EU doesn't make everyone happy. It contrasts with Roman Prodi's emphasis this week on the Commission and the European Parliament. Blair is tough-mindedly unrepentant on this. When one official murmured during a Downing Street meeting on the speech that one passage's emphasis on nation states seemed "rather Gaullist", Blair gave him the thumbs up sign. "De Gaulle," he replied. "Top man."

But to depict this as containing some echo of the Bruges-like rhetoric of Margaret Thatcher is fundamentally wrong. She would never have chosen, as Blair has done, to engage fully and seriously with the debate started by the German foreign minister and the French president. He comes to the debate, moreover, with the credentials of a prime minister more fully engaged with Europe, than any since Sir Edward Heath. He takes wholly for granted, as his predecessors since then never did, the EU's essential role not only as a vehicle for enforcing the single market, but for tackling defence, crime, asylum and above all economic reform. He has no hang-ups about a Europe that works being in Britain's national interests.

His approach poses a stark contrast to those on show in Bournemouth yesterday, where Kenneth Clarke and Michael Heseltine, the only leading Tories capable of articulating the patriotic case for European engagement, are pushed to the sidelines. Where official Tory policy speaks, if not for the withdrawal which many of its leading members want, at least for a marginalisation in an outer core. Where some of the biggest cheers are for off-the-map europhobes like Frederick Forsyth or Daniel Hannam. In the Bournemouth bubble, British Conservatism, once the engine of europeanism in British politics, vies with itself to crush the European cause. In Warsaw tomorrow, Blair will get on with the real business of trying to make Europe work.