A simple case to make: our future lies with Europe

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The Independent Online

There was much throat-clearing yesterday in long-term anticipation of the promised referendum on the European constitution. Within a few hours, three conflicting signals emanated from Westminster about Europe: the first downright hostile, the second a warm embrace, the third distinctly lukewarm.

There was much throat-clearing yesterday in long-term anticipation of the promised referendum on the European constitution. Within a few hours, three conflicting signals emanated from Westminster about Europe: the first downright hostile, the second a warm embrace, the third distinctly lukewarm.

The first came from what was billed as a new cross-party campaign to oppose the European constitution. In fact, it was new in name only: the No campaign is an amalgamation and reheating of two rather older campaigns: the Vote No group backed by business, and the leftist Centre for a Social Europe. At least the new name leaves even less doubt about what it stands for.

The second came from a trio of Labour politicians led by the former foreign secretary, Robin Cook. They lavished praise on the European constitution - which they were careful to call, accurately, the constitutional treaty - stressed the social values that this document enshrines and warned of Britain's isolation on Europe's margins if the treaty were rejected.

The third came from the new minister for Europe, Douglas Alexander, in the course of the Commons debate on foreign and defence policy aspects of the Queen's Speech. Mr Alexander tried, not altogether successfully, to clear up the confusion about whether we would have a referendum if France voted "no" in 10 days' time. There would, he said, be a vote regardless of what other countries did. But he did not address Tony Blair's intimation that, after the French vote, there might be no constitution to vote on.

The rest of Mr Alexander's contribution, however, displayed a combination of wishful thinking and old-fashioned blarney. To say, as he did, that the election proved the public's endorsement of political parties favouring a strong role for Britain in Europe was - however much we might deplore this - very far from the truth. We were not voting about Europe; we were deliberately not given the chance. In promising a referendum, Mr Blair removed the whole contentious subject from the field lest it complicate his re-election.

In helping to produce a new Labour government, committed to a referendum and not anti-Europe, this tactic worked. Nor is a "yes" vote from Britain totally out of the question. Mr Alexander might more accurately have said that the combination of Labour's re-election and the commendable showing by the Liberal Democrats gave pro-Europeans the advantage in the Commons. In the country at large, however, the balance of forces looks less favourable. Polls show a 20 per cent gap between Britons who say they would vote down the European constitution and those who say they would approve it.

Most sadly lacking yesterday, though, as it has been since the election, was any expression of real enthusiasm for Europe from the very top of the Government. It had been mooted that the reshuffle would produce a full Cabinet minister for Europe. Mr Alexander, probably a more forceful scrapper for the European cause, replaced the more cerebral Euro-enthusiast, Denis MacShane. But he was given only Cabinet "access", not membership in his own right.

Mr Blair thus lost an early opportunity to renew his commitment to Europe in advance of a referendum. His failure to set a thoroughly pro-Europe tone for the new term by publicly endorsing the constitution early on was another chance passed by. Whatever Mr Alexander said yesterday, we sense that bets are being hedged until after the French have voted. It is high time Mr Blair stopped looking over his shoulder and said again, as directly as he did eight years ago, that our interests, and our future, lie with Europe.

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