Leading article: Next stop, Copenhagen

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The Independent Online

It was, of course, the IoS wot won it. Our "No, non, nein" campaign against Tony Blair ensured that he was not chosen as the first President of the European Council last week. Well, our campaign, and attitudes towards the Iraq war across Europe, and trade-offs between the broad political blocs in the European Union – and, undoubtedly, the unwillingness of some European leaders to be upstaged by such a well-known figure. As Herman van Rompuy, the successful candidate, remarked: "We will all bring along different luggage."

It is important to be clear about the lessons of our triumph, however. British Europhobes, in particular, have a lot to learn. They have been as vociferous as some pro-European voices in their criticisms of the undemocratic way in which Europe's new leadership team has been chosen. They should be careful what they wish for. For such a criticism can have only two implications. Either that such jobs should be chosen by some form of election; or that Britain should pull out of the EU. But to confer direct democratic legitimacy on any EU post would lend it vastly increased authority, and represent a genuine transfer of sovereignty to Brussels, as opposed to the phantoms against which the Europhobes have railed for so long. Greater democratic accountability at the European level is something that this newspaper supports as a longer-term goal, but David Cameron, the Conservative leader, might be better advised to sound vaguely approving of the Rompuy-Ashton settlement.

Mr Cameron ought to learn another lesson from the deal that was cut with surprisingly little fuss last Thursday evening. Which is that the big political groupings matter, and not just in the unreported proceedings of the European Parliament. The presidency was decided by the Christian Democratic bloc, in which Angela Merkel and Nicolas Sarkozy are the principal power brokers. Gordon Brown's success – for which most of the British media perversely refuse to give him credit – in securing the second post for a Briton was achieved through the good offices of Labour's membership of the second largest, social democratic bloc. Mr Cameron, if he becomes prime minister next year, has deliberately disarmed himself and the country in advance by setting up his fringe grouping with the maverick Czech right.

There are lessons for pro-Europeans, too, both in the creation of these posts and the way that they were filled. We have long argued that there is a lack of democracy at the heart of the EU, which was not remedied by the Lisbon Treaty. As it happens, Mr Van Rompuy and Cathy Ashton are good choices to lead the EU who should be given a chance to prove themselves. We have minor reservations about both of them. Lady Ashton has never been elected to public office, which might have gone a tiny way towards filling the democratic deficit – although Mr Van Rompuy's election as a Belgian MP and subsequent forming of a coalition government is of limited relevance to the principle of accountability in his new post. Both candidates lack name recognition and global presence, which matters not for the sake of it but because – it is that democratic deficit again – we know so little about their world views and their plans for Europe. Our objection to Mr Blair was not his international superstardom but his record on Iraq.

The broader lesson of the past eight years, from the decision to draw up a "constitution for Europe" to last week's appointment of two epitomes of the Eurocrat elite, is that democratic accountability at the European level must be allowed to grow from the bottom up. The idea of imposing administrative changes from above without popular consent should now be dead. In the end, the Lisbon process did take account of popular opinion, in the sense that the opposition to the invasion of Iraq was what put an end to Mr Blair's chances. But that kind of democracy by osmosis cannot be expected to suffice in future.

Now, though, is time to focus on practical matters rather than the soap opera of high politics. With 15 days until the Copenhagen climate change summit, and the continuing challenges of economic recovery, fair trade, nuclear proliferation and the Middle East, there is plenty that the EU is better placed to do than its member states alone.

The Lisbon Treaty's ratification and the filling of the posts it creates, should end a long period of introspective wrangling about structures rather than objectives. That gives the new leaders of the EU the chance to rebuild democratic support for the European ideal in the most robust and meaningful way: by delivering tangible benefits for the citizens of Europe.