Has the EU reached breaking point?

Could the European Union collapse? The question, dismissed a few years ago as the stirrings of Europhobic fantasists, is now pertinent. National governments across the continent are struggling for authority and credibility. Econ-omies are struggling for growth and dynamism. The confidence and certainties of the post-Second World War settlement are being eroded. The British disease of animosity towards European institutions has spread.

The desperate struggle to approve the constitution in countries which had been the bedrock of the project is not the cause, but the manifestation, of the crisis. The first sign that something was awry came in 2001, when Ireland voted No to the Nice Treaty. A country which until that point had only benefited from membership gave it a resounding thumbs-down. The minutiae of that particular treaty was not the issue in that referendum. The Irish simply wanted to make their anxiety known, and it was an inchoate list comprising anti-foreigner sentiment, opposition to abortion, support for Sinn Fein and/or generally giving Bertie Ahern a good kicking.

As Francois Mitterrand remarked: "When a government consults its people on a particular question through a referendum, the answer it gets is often aimed at a different question." For the French this time around - and don't forget how they nearly rejected Maastricht in 1992 - it is a resistance to the chill winds of globalisation and fears of the end of Gallic exceptionalism. For the Dutch, the strains over immigration have been evident for some time. The constitutional treaty is no panacea. It contains very little that is objectionable, but not much more that is commendable. It is essentially an oversize (852-page) management manual with a mission statement at the front.

The treaty will, to some degree, streamline the workings of the three institutions that comprise the EU - the European Commission, the meetings of the member states that are the council, and the parliament. It creates an EU foreign minister, a good thing, although in Javier Solana the organisation already has one in all but name. It is, as the French resistance rightly points out, more of an Anglo-Saxon cobble-together than anything the founding fathers would have agreed to.

Europe's problems extend far beyond the fate of this document. The spectacular rejection of Gerhard Schroder's SPD in state elections in Germany attests to discontent with one variant of social democracy. The impending demise of Messrs Chirac and Berlusconi suggests that centre-right solutions in France and Italy are similarly not finding favour. Should that bring a smile to the face of the recently re-elected Tony Blair? Hardly. Leaving aside the legitimacy or otherwise of his victory, Blair is an equally denuded figure in EU chancelleries. Iraq saw to that, more particularly his craven support for the Bush administration's attempts to divide Europe into "new" and "old". What was done so wantonly will take years of assiduous diplomacy to undo.

And yet the task of keeping "Europe" afloat will fall to the very man who has failed to reconcile that very project to his own people. Britain has played a desultory role in the EU - late in arriving and truculent in participating. Blair will assume the EU presidency in the summer at the least propitious of moments. The last Blairite presidency, in 1998, was long on stunts (speech on platform as Eurostar arrives at Waterloo Station, that kind of thing), short on substance. This time will have to be different.

What matters is not the fate of constitutions or institutions, but providing a means for Europe to thrive, or at least survive, in the face of the dual threat of Chinese and Indian economic might and American military hubris. There is simply no future for us - the UK, France, Germany or any other EU member - in going it alone. Integration per se is not the solution. Clever integration, on economics, diplomacy and defence, is.

Will Europe's leaders be up to the task? The omens are not good. While the French kick up rough over the admission of Turkey, the Brits defend their indefensible budget rebate, negotiated 20 years ago by Margaret Thatcher and her handbag. Trading it in for some serious progress on the Common Agricultural Policy would be a deft piece of negotiation. But of course we won't. The shrill cries of Euroscepticism have, as ever, intervened.

"Red lines", once the preserve of the UK, are now invoked by all governments as they seek to indulge their voters and "get something out of Brussels". A mean spirit has taken hold. A club once so popular that countries clamoured to join is now having to justify its very existence.

Leaps and bounds ahead

Talking of Europe . . . Britain has once again succumbed to the power of the Swedish export. The effortless rise of the "Crazy Frog" ringtone towards number one in the music charts - 5,000 sold an hour, with the prospect of it becoming the biggest-selling hit of the year - is testament to our masochistic streak. Is there no depth to which the public will not sink? At the last count, two members of the New Statesman staff, senior ones at that, have admitted to possessing the offending item on their mobile phones. Both plead in mitigation that they were forced into it by ringtone saboteurs (their children).

Meanwhile, an even greater affliction is about to befall high streets and offices across the land. Word has it that an even more arresting jamster ringtone, "Sweetie the Chick", is preparing its assault on our CD racks. One NS offender has already been identified, and there are surely more to come.