Perhaps it can be put down to the inexperience of a Foreign Secretary still struggling to find his own voice. Or maybe there was something about the venue, which has long been associated with the most obstinate strain of British Euro-rejectionism. Whatever the reason, David Miliband delivered a very odd speech to the College of Europe in Bruges yesterday.
Some of the Foreign Secretary's arguments were perfectly sensible, of course. His emphasis on the need for the European Union to focus its energies on promoting free trade, protecting the environment, and tackling religious extremism could not be faulted. And his appeal to the EU to honour its promises to Turkey was timely.
But this was all rather undone by Mr Miliband's strangely belligerent vision of Europe's role in the world. He called for the EU to use "soft and hard power to promote democracy and tackle conflict beyond its borders". Mr Miliband is quite right to describe the lack of European defence coordination as an "embarrassment". But do we really want to export European values through "the hard power of troops", as he implied? Have our leaders learnt nothing from the disaster in Iraq?
There was also a depressing amount in the speech designed to appeal to a Eurosceptic audience back home. Statements such as, "the EU will never be a superpower" and the claim that Europe "is not going to become a superstate", were pretty obviously designed to appeal to the Eurosceptic British press. But this is a dangerous road for the Foreign Secretary to go down.
It is all very well complaining that most Europeans are "bored and angry" with EU institutional reform, as Mr Miliband did yesterday. But it is intellectually dishonest for the Foreign Secretary not to acknowledge that the latest round of institutional reform was partly made necessary by EU enlargement, a process that he singled out elsewhere in his speech for special praise. After the accession of 12 new members, the EU's structures were bound to need an overhaul.
Mr Miliband also said nothing in Bruges about what Britain will contribute to the process of developing the EU into a "model power". Perhaps, instead of delivering stern lectures on the Continent, ministers could make a few more speeches in the UK presenting the case for Europe.
But most disappointing of all was Mr Miliband's desire to diminish the EU. The Foreign Secretary predicted that "Europe will be less important in the world of 2050 than it was in the world of 1950". It certainly will be if all our future foreign secretaries are as lacking in ambition as the present one seems to be.Reuse content