Let's not discuss it in front of the children

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The Independent Online
IN A big week for Europe, some things are starting to go the British government's way. The European Union is widening. More and more governments are worrying about competitiveness and social costs. Unnecessary legislation is being weeded out. New structures are in place to combat fraud and waste. So how is the British government going to play its cards in the months ahead?

Douglas Hurd's speech in Belgium last night, an opener for the Tories' European election campaign, gave some clues. It was both interesting and worrying. It concentrated on a practical critique of the Union's current day-to-day failures. And that was interesting. But it contained virtually no reference to the big questions that fascinate continental politicians - the currency question, the democracy question, the federal question. And that was worrying.

There is merit in the Hurd approach. Fraud, waste, excessive legislative interference are a living rebuke to the EU. Unchecked, they will further undermine its popular support and, eventually, its very legitimacy. Corruption, as the Italian example shows, eventually becomes a constitutional question.

It is also true that, across Europe, the question of what the Union does, rather than how it is constructed, is of rising importance to politicians who feel their old authority slipping away. Arguments about employment, the environment and aid for poor regions directly affect voters, as constitution- mongering didn't. They are good for Europe and good for the trade.

So the Foreign Secretary was choosing worthwhile targets. It was bold of him, in the circumstances, to single out the European aid budget for criticism. He attacked proposed forestry projects in the Philippines and Colombia that would mean 'the large-scale resettlement of many people', and aid for the Central African Republic which lacked 'economic, social or financial analysis'. Surely, some mandarin wit of Tio Pepe dryness was involved in drafting those sentences? Still, these were real targets, moderately assailed. They were not, however, the only ones.

Mr Hurd's message is meant to be only one strand of the Tories' current approach to the EU, but all the signs are that it will be the dominant one. Pragmatism is the order of the day among the pro-European Tories, brutal pragmatism in Michael Heseltine's case, sturdy pragmatism in Mr Hurd's. He concluded: 'The criticism of our people is not that we aim too low in our speeches and declarations but that the actual work of the Union falls below its rhetoric. I believe that it would be wise to have a truce on rhetoric.'

Well, it would certainly be convenient for the Conservative Party managers. But two problems immediately present themselves. The first is a low-grade, tactical one. If pro-Europeans such as Mr Hurd seem to be echoing language associated with the right-wing nationalists, won't all Conservatives be seen by voters as essentially anti-Brussels? To the inattentive ear, friendly criticism and the other sort can sound uncannily alike. Britain's problem has long been that pragmatism is easily confused with scepticism, even with biting hostility.

The atmosphere of the country has changed since the disastrous Thatcherite Euro-campaign of 1989, but a rerun of that 'diet of Brussels' message is something the Government explicitly ruled out. Instead, it wanted a conventional left- right battle, pitching Tories against spendthrift socialists. The danger is that only the most sophisticated voters will notice the difference.

A more serious problem is that the Foreign Secretary's speech omitted virtually any reference to the central political and constitutional dilemmas confronting the EU. By doing so, it attempted to close down top-level British political argument about some big questions at a most important time.

What, for instance, will be the impact of enlargement? Britain has been fighting this week against more majority voting, but if the EU keeps growing, that will happen. That, in turn, raises serious questions about the residual, attenuated and feeble element of voter-power in the European Union. Shouldn't the European Parliament be steadily strengthened against the European Commission and the Council of Ministers? If Westminster can't stand that idea, shouldn't the ministerial councils be opened up to the scrutiny of national parliaments and peoples, becoming a sort of super-senate, rather than a closed and semi-private rolling negotiation between cronies?

Equally important, what is Britain's attitude to a the resurrection of the single currency project? Where do our interests really lie? A lot of British industry seems keen, but what about the City, so central to the prosperity of the English South-east? It survived the collapse of the sterling area and the weakness of the home base by moving into the Eurodollar market, and then responded to the 1979 abolition of exchange controls with the 'Big Bang' reforms. Now a strategic decision of similar magnitude looms. A single European currency would cut the opportunities for currency trading, but could London afford not to be a central part of the new financial bloc?

These are not simply airy constitutional questions, nor are they merely 'rhetoric' that can be dispensed with while sensible people discuss fraud or the aid budget. They are central to Britain's position in the world, and more important for British prosperity than the latest confrontations over worker- consultation. Even as Europe may be turning a little more the British way, the Government seems to have decided that, all things considered, it is better not to talk about the most difficult questions in front of the children. If so, that is an abdication of leadership. There comes a point when honest pragmatism starts to sound like loss of nerve.