The European debate may be moving Britain's way

Tony Blair's speech in Warsaw today, setting out Britain's vision of how the European Union should develop, could not be better timed. President Chirac has called for a "pioneer group of countries" pressing ahead with integration as the EU takes on new members, while the German Foreign Minister has embraced an openly federal vision of the future. Now it is Britain's turn.

Tony Blair's speech in Warsaw today, setting out Britain's vision of how the European Union should develop, could not be better timed. President Chirac has called for a "pioneer group of countries" pressing ahead with integration as the EU takes on new members, while the German Foreign Minister has embraced an openly federal vision of the future. Now it is Britain's turn.

As his choice of venue suggests, the Prime Minister will reiterate Britain's commitment to enlargement, calling for a deadline for the entry of the first of the next wave of members. But the speech's true importance lies in the institutional issues he will raise - just as the underlying argument over Europe is moving Britain's way.

The heat of the debate has obscured much light. There is, for instance, a growing consensus that the European Commission should be downgraded in favour of the Council of Ministers. Clearly, too, the future lies not in a one-size-fits-all Europe (hardly possible among today's 15 members, inconceivable among tomorrow's 26), nor even in a two-speed Europe of members and non-members of the euro. The only solution is - pardon the jargon - a "variable geometry" or " à la carte" Europe, where groups of countries step up co-operation in areas they choose; finance, defence, immigration or the environment. Britain's readiness to see a weakening of its power to block such initiatives is thus entirely logical.

The other piece in the jigsaw is the curing of Europe's "democratic deficit": how to bring EU institutions closer to the people. The rejection by Denmark's voters of the euro was less a quarrel with the single currency (to which the Danish krone is pegged) than reflection of a fear that membership would place the country still more at the mercy of a remote bureaucracy.

More power, then, for the Council of Ministers, who are elected. But that is only part of the answer. The European Parliament must get a higher profile. Mr Blair favours a European senate, a second chamber drawn from national parliaments, to ensure the commission does not exceed its remit. It is just one idea among many, but at least we are serious participants in the debate. Who knows, Mr Blair may make his next big European speech in Britain itself.

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