Politics - John Kampfner on the EU's straight banana factor

The task facing pro-Europeans is bleaker than at any other time in Tony Blair's two terms. So risky

Imagine the following: the prime minister invites the leaders of France and Germany to join him in teaching his voters about the merits of the EU constitution. That will happen this month, but the premier in question is Spanish. The festivities in Barcelona on 11 February are not confined to Jose Luis RodrIguez Zapatero and his guests Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder. Johann Cruyff, the Dutch manager of the city's famous football team, will also be on hand. At a Madrid derby match last month, rival fans were given booklets explaining the treaty. On the eve of the 20 February vote, schools will hold a Europe Day. Spain, the first of a dozen countries to hold a referendum, is expecting a high turnout and a convincing victory for the Yes camp. The latest Eurobarometer survey shows, by contrast, that the UK is the most hostile, and that half the population has no idea what it is all about.

So risky is the cause that when it was mooted recently that David Beckham might be approached to endorse the British campaign, the public relations team of our home-grown galactico quickly denied he would do any such thing. The task facing pro-Europeans, concentrated around the Britain in Europe lobby group, is bleaker than at any other time in Tony Blair's two terms. Having seen their hopes of introducing the euro currency dashed, they are now being asked to gather their forces to defend a project far less ambitious.

Ministers have taken some heart from a recent Sunday Telegraph poll, showing that the gap might not be as great as was thought. The conventional wisdom all along was that a small minority of the population was dead set against any EU changes, an even smaller minority was passionately in favour and the vast majority was largely unaware, superficially swayed by anti-European rhetoric but potentially open to persuasion. The trouble is that there has been no persuasion and Blair has made it clear he wants none until after the election.

All the while, the No camp has been amassing funds: £500,000 at a single fundraising dinner in November, with the hope of ten times that amount by the time formal hostilities begin. The group has placed a series of adverts in cinemas featuring actors and other celebrities, having concluded that Tory MPs should steer well clear of any campaigning. The Yes team is in a quandary. It is struggling to bring celebs on board, but likewise does not want to rely too much on Blair or other ministers to do the selling. Blair faces a similar conundrum. The more he is seen to be leading the campaign, the more his position would be imperilled if he loses. If he does take a low profile, he will stand accused of a final act of bottling on Europe.

The "no" message is more instantly seductive: it will pander to fears of a further erosion of sovereignty, claiming that the UK will no longer be in charge of our foreign policy or police or courts. The charter of rights will be seen as an affront to our independence, the very word constitution will be portrayed as a threat. The "yes" message is more defensive. There is little to fear in this treaty, it will say. So hard did the British fight their corner at the negotiation that they enraged many on the Continent, the French in particular, who see the final version as a betrayal of their dreams of a "social Europe". The slogan "Vote for the status quo" is not particularly sexy. So the double negative will be deployed. A vote against is a vote to marginalise Britain and even to hasten our departure from the Union.

The pollsters are telling Blair that his best hope is to portray this as a referendum to preserve the status quo. A sense of danger has to be instilled. The trouble is that he and those around him have done little in their eight years of office to tackle anti-European myths. They have demonstrated pro-European commitment only in fits and starts. Focus groups provide depressing anecdotes. At one, respondents based their hostility towards the euro on the strength of sterling. Asked why they believed the pound was superior, they said it was because all other countries' currencies divided into it: take £100 to the bank, and you get, say, $180 or E140 in return.

The straight banana is alive and well. That begs the question: how do we as a nation reconcile our "lived" experience - of second homes in France, low-cost airlines, European cuisine and European footballers at even the smallest club - with our political and media experience of visceral fear and hostility towards the Continent?

Or put it another way: there are up to 40 flights a day to Barcelona from the UK. That is more than double from any other European country.

Are most passengers really that hostile?

John Kampfner's new book, Dangerous Liaisons, on the Labour government and Europe, is published this autumn