Click to follow
The Independent Online
In the next year Britain could have more influence over the future shape of Europe than at any point since 1945. It seems determined to forego it.

The old, unitary, integrationist bandwagon, set in motion after the Second World War, is running out of steam. The post-war technocratic vision of Europe was that it would proceed through stages of economic integration, starting with the trade of coal and steel, ending with monetary and fiscal policies. Economic integration would create the need for political co- operation and so build the foundations for peace. That vision has almost run its course. The plan for economic and monetary union is perhaps the last grand project that will emerge from that unitary school of European thinking, and privately even its supporters acknowledge that it is in deep trouble.

The growing exhaustion of the old vision is evident from the lacklustre preparations for what should be the most significant discussion of Europe's future for decades, the Intergovernmental Conference starting in Turin at the end of this month. The backdrop for the conference could not be more dramatic. Core states of the European Union are struggling to adhere to their plan for EMU drawn up to bind in the Union a reunified and dominant Germany. The EU has yet to decide how to accommodate the states liberated from Communism. Their accession threatens to make the Union's decision- making more cumbersome, so far-reaching institutional reform is inescapable. On top of all that, Europe needs to decide how it can act together in defence and foreign policy, in a post-Cold-War world where small bloody wars are more common and the US is less inclined to lead.

In the face of these challenges, the conference seems set to tinker. At a similar conference in Luxembourg in 1985 everyone knew the aim was to create the single market. In 1990-91 everybody knew the purpose of Maastricht was economic and monetary union. Turin still has no clear agenda. The purveyors of the old vision of Europe are floundering.

So the opening for an alternative vision of how Europe should progress is wider than at any time for generations. That will not come from diehard Eurosceptics arguing for a Union that is a limited mechanism for sovereign states to co-operate. The EU has always been more than that: not a mechanism for organising states but a way of pooling sovereignty in a new kind of international body. Indeed, the degree of integration is recognised on every page of yesterday's cleverly pitched government White Paper on the Intergovernmental Conference. The White Paper is not inspirational but makes several proposals, particularly on European foreign policy, which will appeal to Paris. Britain has now made important contributions to discussions on foreign and defence policy, where it can stake a realistic claim to leading European debate. Federalists in Brussels and Bonn will be dismayed, for with this document the Government has shown that, despite its domestic political problems, it cannot be discounted.

But the paper is all mechanics. That is a pity because the European debate could move in Britain's direction. The attractions of a flexible community, which would allow a wider diversity of states to integrate at different speeds on different issues, first advanced by Mr Major, are now acknowledged in Paris, Bonn and Brussels. The real debate will be about what sort of multi-speed community will eventually supplant the old unitary vision.

A coalition led by France and Germany threatens to use the idea of multi- track integration to form an inner core of states that would leave Britain isolated and unable to influence integration. Instead of digging in its heels, Britain urgently needs to flesh out how a multi-speed Europe would work, not only for its own sake but to provide a viable alternative to the old wisdom. A Europe governed by variable geometry would fit better a world in which power is diffused, roles overlap and responsibilities are shared, a point well made in a pamphlet from the think-tank Demos, by Robert Cooper, a senior British diplomat in Germany, published on Thursday.

Most people in Britain feel attracted to the culture of Europe. They want to identify as European. But they are sceptical about the institutions that govern Europe. Opportunity for institutional reform and rewards for new ideas could be greater than for years. This White Paper shows some in the Government recognise that. They must grasp the opportunity, for if they do not Britain will be badly served by the ill-tempered reluctance their short-sighted colleagues threaten to impose on us.