Leading article: Less debate, more leadership

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In his first speech since taking over as Europe Minister, Geoff Hoon yesterday urged people to "think Europe" and said his aim is "to restart the debate in this country" over the future of the EU. Unfortunately, Mr Hoon's intervention seemed designed more to relaunch his own flagging career than to resolve the crisis confronting Europe and its institutions.

It is a year since Dutch and French "no" votes led to the European constitution being put on ice during a "pause for reflection". What followed has, as one wag pointed out, been a lot of pause without much reflection. In interviews, Mr Hoon trotted out a familiar plea for more time to debate what should replace the constitution.

At a summit today, EU leaders will agree on a postponement of another year at least. That, the theory goes, will allow further debate and a chance to show the public that the EU is delivering on concrete projects. Here Mr Hoon cited a litany of bread-and-butter European achievements, including reduced mobile phone roaming charges and a more effective single market.

The problem with this argument is not that it is wrong, but that it can only take us so far. There is now a minor industry among pollsters, academics and politicians devoted to consulting the public. The European Commission has spent months engaged in what it calls "plan D for Democracy" and the luckless commissioner in charge, Margot Wallström, writes a regular weblog.

It is true that no final decisions can be taken until after the French presidential elections next year, but unless politicians show leadership and take a clear stand for European solutions - occasionally allowing them to override national interests - the European Union is doomed to stagnation. Here Britain's politicians are as spineless as ever.

Once at the heart of Tony Blair's programme, Europe has dropped out of sight. In fact Mr Blair comes to today's summit in the bizarre position of opposing a measure he championed just months ago. Under the last British EU presidency he promoted plans to open up decision-making to the cameras. Yet Britain is now digging in against a plan that is only marginally different.

Mr Blair's presumed successor, Gordon Brown, waited until June to turn up to his first formal meeting of EU finance ministers this year. And David Cameron has held his entire European policy hostage to an absurd row about where Conservatives should sit in the European Parliament.

Meanwhile there are big issues at stake, including the future of Europe's enlargement, Turkey's place in it, and the need to repair the EU's creaking institutions, which were barely addressed by Mr Hoon. As someone back in a job he first occupied in 1999, he must surely know they cannot be put off forever.

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