Words like deckchairs and Titanic involuntarily assemble themselves into a handy sentence at the back of the mind as the leaders of Europe assemble for yet another attempt to finalise a European constitution. Last weekend warning bells rang all over Europe about the growing gulf between the European project and the European population. Turnout slid throughout Europe and nationalist parties scored depressing levels of support in the newest member states and some of the most established.
We can pin responsibility for the elections that produced that reversal for Europe on Giscard d'Estaing. As President of France, it was he who pushed for direct elections to the European Parliament on the ground that it would connect the people with Europe. Many benefits have flowed from a full-time parliament of committed Europeans and I have nothing but respect for the tireless dedication of its members. But reconciling the people to Europe has not been among the achievements of the European Parliament.
Last Sunday a clear majority of Europeans did not bother to vote and the overwhelming majority of those who did turn out voted on national rather than European issues. Governments are smarting from the discovery that direct elections to the European Parliament have been seized by their citizens as a cost-free opportunity to give their domestic rulers a kicking. It is a salutary lesson in the dangers of imposing democracy by summit.
There never was a popular demand for elections to a body of which most citizens were only dimly aware, and the masses have not been persuaded to vote on M. d'Estaing's principle that it would connect them to Europe. Turnout has dropped with every successive election to the European Parliament in the 25years since they started.
In the wake of the latest low in turnout, a score of prime ministers and attendant motorcades convene to debate a European constitution, the new proposal by M. d'Estaing to connect the people with Europe. There are many sensible improvements in the draft text. It has to be right to have a semi-permanent, full-time president of the Council of Ministers, rather than the present idiocy of a presidency that rotates every six months between prime ministers who are expected to lead Europe in the spare time left over from running their country.
But obsessing over the rules and procedures that control the European institutions is a cause of mounting excitement only to the true Brussels anorak. We are not going to arouse the affection of the public for the European project by triumphantly announcing we have reached agreement on merging the three pillars in the European treaties into one common external personality.
The European Union is in danger of becoming a parody of itself as a perpetual machine for the extrusion of fresh constitutional amendments. After the marathon negotiations at Nice over the last treaty, many of us who had survived those four days of constitutional wrangling wanted the European institutions to get back in touch with the real world. Unfortunately, before the Nice Treaty had even been ratified, the European Union then embarked on a programme that would comprehensively rewrite it.
A systemic problem for the European Union is that its most high-profile moments are grandiose summits in exclusive surroundings. The modern obsession with security enhances their isolation. It is inconceivable now that the prime ministers should mount bicycles and ride through the streets to lunch as they did in Amsterdam half a dozen years ago. The visual message of the bulletins from summits today is that Europe is a gathering of a political elite with no obvious contact with ordinary citizens. .
The leaders of Europe will only revive support for Europe if they shift the focus of their agenda to the issues that matter to the public who are not in the council chamber. The irony that infuriates those of us who are committed to Europe is that there is no shortage of popular angles to integration. A continent without barriers has dramatically increased trade and freedom of movement. Increased competition has slashed the cost to consumers of phone calls and air travel. Decent standards of social and economic rights have given working people redress against discrimination and excessive working hours. Most valuable of all, nation states once rivals in war are irreversibly bound together as economic partners.
A fiver to the first reader who hears any of these positive attributes of the European project being articulated on a news bulletin from today's summit. Instead we are being prepared by briefings for Tony Blair to emerge waving a handful of red lines he has preserved. He may well succeed, not least because he had got virtual agreement to them when the European Council last discussed them six months ago.
But there is a fundamental problem in the public position he has taken up for the negotiations. He did not pack his briefcase for Brussels determined to get a good constitution for Europe. He left defiantly proclaiming his resolve to defend Britain against the perceived threat of the constitution. By definition, any success he scores in Brussels will be a victory not for Europe but over Europe. I do not comprehend how he then intends to launch a visionary campaign to persuade the public to vote positively for the Europe whose challenge he has just defeated.
By contrast, Robert Kilroy-Silk's programme has the advantage of brutal simplicity. When asked what he intended to do in the European Parliament he gleefully responded: "Wreck it". Presumably he will preserve the freedom of movement that enabled him to stay in the villa in Spain where he agreed with a hereditary peer to stand for the party pledged to preserve British traditions from all the insidious European customs they could see from the balcony.
Some of the comment on Sunday's results speculated that the rise of United Kingdom Independence Party was a problem for the Conservative Party, but a plus for Labour. Personally, I regard the strong showing of UKIP as a disaster for us both, and Britain.
Blair's instinctive response to an electoral threat is not to challenge it, but to triangulate it. This would be a serious mistake in response to UKIP. There is not even the most slender common ground on which New Labour could erect one of its favourite third ways, and we must not compromise with the national chauvinism off which they feed.
When I met Anna Lindh, Sweden's foreign minister, for the last time before her murder, she rebuked me for the growing nationalism of the British Government, warning, "We will not beat the right by agreeing they have the right agenda." We will not defeat the opponents of Europe by posing as even tougher than them in resisting Brussels. We will only win by convincing the British people that Europe is not a threat but an asset. That needs a dramatically different agenda from the one on offer this week in Brussels.Reuse content