Leading Article: Spare a thought for Europe this autumn

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The Independent Online
AS the holiday season draws to a close, a lively political autumn lies ahead, both at home and on the Continent. August in Britain, perhaps less dead than usual, was marked by Michael Portillo's latest manoeuvres to endear himself to the Eurosceptics, by the Liberal Democrats' seemingly suicidal bid to brand themselves as the party of high taxation, and by Labour's not especially impressive attempt to set itself up as the party of 'fairness'.

Closer to the doorstep, we are braced for a rise in the price of milk, following an awkward attempt to deregulate trade in a commodity whose supply is subject to volume limits imposed by the European Union's indefensible Common Agricultural Policy.

Across the Channel, the campaign for Germany's general election on 16 October got into its stride. In France, the centre- right continued to scrap over who should be its candidate for presidential elections next May, when Francois Mitterrand retires. In Italy, the public's brief honeymoon with the media magnate who became prime minister, Silvio Berlusconi, came to a loveless halt.

Although this country faces no political happening as substantial as Germany and France's impending elections, the autumn will witness a not much less interesting phenomenon: the full exposure of the Blair effect. The election of an attractive Labour leader with a strong appeal to voters in the Tory-dominated South has resulted in a serious dilemma for both Conservatives and Liberal Democrats. Should they fight what promises to be an essentially social democratic Labour Party for the middle ground of public opinion? Or should they establish themselves well to the right and left of Labour?

The Lib Dems seem bent on a shift to the left, and nervous Conservatives seem intent upon consolidating their 'natural' support on the right, just as they did by pandering to Eurosceptics in the European elections. Yet Labour emerged from those same elections convinced that its pro-European line contributed to its much more successful results.

John Major will be doing his best to press Tony Blair to define precisely where Labour stands on specific European and other foreign policy issues: the Labour leader's pronouncements so far have been notably woolly.

The temptation for the Prime Minister to put 'clear water' between the Tories and Labour over Europe, while propitiating his party's vociferous right wing, will be strong. It will probably become irresistible as the next election, due by spring 1997, and the European Union's son-of-Maastricht Inter-Governmental Conference, scheduled for 1996, approach. Mr Major would then be able to wrap himself in the Union Jack and claim that the Tories alone will defend Britain's interests at the conference.

As it happens, there will be a chance over the next nine months for Britain to play a positive role in the EU's councils. Germany currently holds the presidency, but its leaders will be preoccupied with their election campaigns at least until the federal poll, and possibly for longer if coalition negotiations ensue. As for the French, their electioneering will last for all but seven weeks of their EU presidency: another chance for Britain to press its ideas on how the EU should evolve.

For at least some causes dear to British hearts, there should be by then natural allies in the shape of three new Scandinavian members. Their accession is subject to the referendums being held in Finland on 16 October; in Sweden on 13 November, following a general election on 18 September; and in Norway, the most likely dropout, on 28 November. Although strong anti-EU factions exist in all these countries, it appears from yesterday's opinion poll data in Sweden that the tide may be moving back in favour of membership.

The paradox of European integration has always been that it looks more impressive to those outside than inside. It is one thing to wish to join a powerful trading bloc with growing, if erratically wielded, political clout. It is another to suffer the web of regulations and losses of sovereignty that are an inevitable part of membership.

In the unstable post-Communist world, the value of the European Union as a factor for stability is greater than ever. That is why the Poles, Hungarians, Czechs and Slovaks are so anxious to join, and why the Germans are so keen to have them in as soon as practicable. At the same time, those safely within the club chafe when its rules seem bureaucratic, intrusive or plain unnecessary. National politicians find it hard to play the politics of the EU in a manner compatible both with public opinion back home and the nation's longer-term interests.

It has not helped that across Europe there has been a wave of disenchantment with the political class; and that the member states of the EU should have failed too frequently to rise to the challenge of recent history. That has been particularly true over Bosnia, but also over access to EU markets for east European products and evolution towards closer political association and eventual membership of these states.

The danger this autumn is that all the political excitement at home in Britain, France, Germany, Italy and indeed Spain will once again relegate Europe to an appendage of national politics. The existence of a lame duck commission in Brussels will also not help. That makes the task of those politicians who recognise the importance of addressing the EU's strategic problems both greater and more urgent.