The Europe they hate no longer exists

The EU has quietly become pragmatic and flexible, so British demands for major reform are at odds with the prevailing mood
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There was a remarkable reaction on the Continent to David Cameron's seven-point shopping list last weekend for a New Europe. Rien. Nichts. Nothing. No coverage in the French or German press. No political commentary.

Everyone is busy, admittedly. Ukraine, not the UK, is the European crisis of the day. Mr Cameron was working to a British political timetable, not a European one.

Ed Miliband had announced that he would (probably) not have an EU referendum. The PM answered by setting out the minimum conditions for a "Cameron Europe" that he hopes to present to the country in an-out vote in 2017. Continental capitals may not have said much but they noted a significant shift in Mr Cameron's position. Last year the PM listed "five principles" for change. They became "seven" objectives last weekend.

Lets play spot the difference. The broad demands have not changed. "Powers flowing away from Brussels … National parliaments to work to block unwanted European legislation … Businesses liberated from red tape … No mass migrations …" and so on.

There was, however, one elephant conspicuous by its absence. Last year, Mr Cameron called for either EU reform or "a new settlement with our European partners". In other words, unless the EU changed to Britain's taste and satisfaction, Britain would demand a more semi-detached, special relationship with the EU. If neither was possible, Britain might leave.

As European capitals noted (silently) last week, the option of a "new deal for Britain alone" was largely absent from Mr Cameron's seven points. Both German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President François Hollande have warned Mr Cameron that a radical shift in membership conditions for one country is a non-starter. The EU – love it or loathe it – is a bundle of boons and burdens; and not everyone agrees which is which.

There is a view in France, for instance – not just on the left – that the present EU has already been constructed to British design. It has been expanded to eastern Europe. It actually applies its founding values of open competition and free trade. Farm spending is retreating. Britain, more than any other of the 28 states, has a pick'n'mix deal. We are outside the euro and outside the Schengen open-borders treaty. We have a rebate on budget contributions. It is not just Berlin and Paris who say "no more".

Mr Cameron seems to have taken those arguments on board, except on one point. He still wants Britain exempted from the celebrated boast of the Treaty of Rome (copy-pasted into the Lisbon treaty) that the aim is an "ever closer union" of the peoples of Europe. This elastic phrase is one of the sources of the British conviction, fostered by Ukip, much of the Conservative party and the Eurosceptic press, that the EU is a conspiracy to abolish the British way of life, from red letter boxes to soggy chips and warm beer.

In truth, the "ever closer" federal mechanism which was wound up and set to work in the 1950s ran down long ago. There is little appetite to wind it up again. Seen from the continent, the old pragmatist vs idealist positions have changed. It is the French and Germans and Dutch and Poles and Spanish and others who are trying to make sense of the muddled semi-federalism of the EU. It is Britain – or much of Britain – which is locked into a poisonous, ideological, anti-institutional anti-Europeanism which refuses to take account of the changed, more workaday realities in Brussels.

Is Europe's muddled semi-federalism worth saving? To paraphrase a senior French diplomat: "No one would have set out to design the EU institutions as they now exist. Taking them away would be a calamity."

Consider Ukraine. The stumbling reaction of the EU has been frustrating. But what kind of sanctions, and support for Kiev, would have emerged if 28 countries were trying to deal with the Russians individually? Europhobic Tory grandees have accused the EU of creating the present crisis. They are right. Ukrainians saw what was happening beyond their western and northern borders. They wanted the same.

Poland and the Baltic states, part of the Warsaw Pact two decades ago, are now thriving economies and democracies. The Hungarians and Czechs less so. If there had been no EU to join, eastern Europe would be a string of pre-2014 Ukraines, vulnerable to the Soviet nostalgia and expansionist bullying of Putin's Russia. British Europhobes (and some Czech ones) argue that it was democracy and free-market economies which the eastern Europeans craved – not the semi-federalist yoke of the EU. Maybe. But without the Brussels supra-national institutions and laws nothing much would have happened. Nor would the wider, single European market last for a day.

There is a mild British Eurosceptic view – milder than Ukip anyway – which argues that the EU should be a free-trade zone without laws or institutions. Boris Johnson sometimes makes this argument. Margaret Thatcher played with it. David Cameron flirts with it.

This is the other missing elephant in the Cameron seven points. The PM wants to repatriate some powers. He would give more say to national parliaments. He would impose limits on free movement of poor people but not rich ones. But the supremacy of EU law over British law would remain.

There are points in "Cameron's Europe" that other EU governments will dispute. There are others that they will agree with. A package of reforms broadly along Cameron lines may be possible, though not in the two-year timetable that he has decreed. Even some tinkering with "ever closer union" is conceivable. The real problem, seen from the continent, is not in Brussels but in Britain. Would Cameron's Europe – still an institutional Europe, still a supranational Europe – answer the blind, ideological hatred of all things EU in Ukip? Or in a large part of his own party?