Leading Article: Europe moves on, but Britain isn't looking

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The Independent Online
Among the pack of dogs that have not barked this election, the most silent has been the matter of Europe.

It is extraordinary. The issue that tore the latter months of the Major premiership to shreds, the issue that since 1975 has turned Labour inside out - and, so far, barely a campaign whisper. Sir James Goldsmith and his Referendum Party have faded even farther into electoral invisibility. They held a huge rally, thousands turned out, but it will make no difference whatever to their vote. As for Labour and the Tories, to say that they are in cahoots would be to invite the charge of being more conspiracy- minded than the writers of Dark Skies. Yet they are succeeding in making Europe a non-issue. The parties have chosen not to place European integration and the single currency before the British people in straightforward terms. But that, it seems, is how the public at large wants it.

The rest of Europe is not holding its breath. In Bonn and Paris and in Madrid and Rome, interest in the outcome of our election is tepid. The game moves on. The Dutch are preparing their drafts for the Amsterdam summit in June, including one interesting paper which would entail somebody having to choose whether to sack either Neil Kinnock or Sir Leon Brittan. Chancellor Kohl has announced his intention to stand for re-election in 1998, with the effect of renewing his party's dedication to the creation of the euro.

In the Adriatic, in spite of Malcolm Rifkind's best efforts to block action of any kind, Italian sailors and marines have striven to seal the borders of the European Union (to which the United Kingdom still belongs) from a wave of Albanian immigrants; meanwhile, Italy's government has just survived a parliamentary challenge to its forward policy in that troubled country, self-consciously forged in the service of Europe.

Here in Britain, conventional wisdom says that the public has become more Euro-sceptic. More and more people tell pollsters that they are opposed to Britain's joining the single currency in 1999, and considerable numbers add "ever". At least there is enough evidence of such cooling to impress Labour's handlers and campaign managers. On two recent set-piece occasions, Tony Blair has gone out of his way to use sceptical language: if he did not quite say "the nation state is safe in my hands", that is what he meant. The man who is unprepared to return to the Scots the sovereignty they gave up in 1707 is unlikely (this is one reading of his Caledonian demarche) to be a patsy in the Council of Ministers in Brussels. Robin Cook repositioned his party on the single currency: in present public mood, any date beyond the year 2000 is as good as never.

Given all that, it is perhaps surprising how little movement there has been in the Conservative position. We talk about the Angela Browning affair. But the breaking of ranks was anticipated. It matters, but it does not much affect how people react to the substantive issue. The country already knows that the Conservative party is split in Europe; it has, in effect, been discounted in the polls in the same way that the financial markets discount an anticipated interest rate, or expected poor unemployment figures.

There is a good reason why the Tories have not seized the hour on Europe, and why they will gain little if they are tempted to "out" the party as Euro-sceptic. Europe is not an election battleground. The public have Europe in mind, but have concluded that it is going to be debated and decided in due course, either during a referendum campaign or during the next parliamentary election. There is no need to worry about it now, because neither of the main parties is going to sign up to to the single currency for a while yet. As for a referendum, Labour ("formidable obstacles" to a single currency) promises one with gusto. The Tories (single currency "unlikely") promise one with knobs on. There, in a nutshell, is the public's puzzlement at the very presence of Sir James and his motley band: everyone and his dog is offering us a referendum, so why bother with a Referendum Party?

Liberal Democrats and (to some extent) the Scottish and Welsh nationalists will say that they have put Europe forward. Vote ScotNat for an independent Scotland that will forthwith abandon one of the principal instruments of sovereignty. Vote Liberal Democrat for a single currency now, though it is not at all clear how the party's commitment to raise taxes and spending (for the sake of the schools!) can be fitted inside the Maastricht treaty's convergence criteria without large and corresponding cuts in spending and/or yet more, unspecified tax rises elsewhere.

But with those exceptions, Euro-silence rules. It is not admirable, this silence - nor is it sustainable for long. Some day soon, Euro-sceptics old and new are going to have to describe the condition and qualities of their Britain - a Britain standing outside the inner core of EU countries, yet forced to treat with Germany on vital questions of European security and EU enlargement. Chancellor Kohl is not going to be deflected from the project he considers so important; which means that Britain will have to adapt to a single currency - or make other arrangements.

Public and mainstream politicians alike have proved deeply reluctant to think through what their distaste for further European integration entails. The British people are sensible enough to know that they cannot shut the garden gate and let the foreigners get on with it. But they seem content to postpone the argument for now.