Europe will soon emerge from its torpor

European institutions are now judged by our once-enthusiastic PM in terms of how little they can int

While one event taking place in the heart of Europe captures our attention, another in recent days has passed us by. Little surprise, and perhaps less regret, that the latest summit of European Union leaders sank without trace. Yet, in wishing the institution away, our politicians and media deceive themselves. Many of the issues that so damaged successive British governments will shortly return, notably the revival of some form of constitutional treaty and the admission of more member states in the east.

An immediate audit of the Brussels gathering produces little of note - admission into the eurozone for Slovenia (an oasis of prosperity even during the Warsaw Pact) and rejection of Lithuania. That was basically that, except for the delicious overruling of Britain's attempt to stop television cameras being allowed into EU meetings, and the declaration that the "period of reflection" on the constitution is shifting into a "period of action". This translates into "watch this space".

It is a year since French and Dutch voters rejected the constitution in referendums that paralysed the European integration project. The torpor continued while elections took place in Germany, whose new leader, Angela Merkel, took time to assemble a coalition. The wait will drag on into the French elections next spring, but then it will end. Whoever becomes French president - Nicolas Sarkozy, Ségolène Royal, or another - France's establishment has long sought the deepening, and not the widening, of the EU. The past decade has set back this cause, but the French elite have not given up. They are preparing to give the constitution life-support treatment.

The next phase of enlargement, with the admission of Romania and Bulgaria, will take place at some point in 2007, and as the president of the European Commission, José Manuel Barroso, has pointed out, the EU cannot expand to 27 and beyond without reforming its structures. Thus, whether Britain's army of Eurosceptics likes it or not, constitutional changes will be back on the agenda. The issue at stake is: will the changes be minimal (a new post of EU president, a foreign minister, an embryonic foreign service, but certainly no Charter of Fundamental Rights) and will they be presented minimally? Or will they be wrapped up in something grander, requiring another of those interminable intergovernmental conferences and, eventually, fresh plebiscites?

No consensus exists at present, and the wrangling will be intense, particularly in the run-up to a planned Declaration of Berlin next March to mark the 50th birthday of the EU. Britain's intentions are clear. European institutions are now judged by our once-enthusiastic Prime Minister according to how little they interfere, rather than what they can achieve.

Ministerial scepticism might appease the tabloids - new Labour's most glaring manifestation of cowardice - but it has other causes, too. As our political editor points out (page 10), our politicians limit their horizons to the English-speaking world, usually to the United States, because they do not speak foreign languages. This applies particularly to Gordon Brown. The Chancellor's record of European engagement is poor. He needs to shed his image of a man desperate to get out of Brussels at the first opportunity.

In recent months there have been signs that he might be doing that. Initial meetings with Merkel and Sarkozy are said to have gone well. It is vital that this next group of leaders establishes close relations, and gets to grips with challenges for Europe that go beyond institutional quibbling. Internal security, migration and crime are top of the list; the environment, energy security, the Middle East, Russia, and establishing a new type of post-Iraq relationship with the US are also vital.

Brown and Britain should delve more deeply into not just what doesn't work in Europe, but what does. They should look beyond growth figures and ask whether it is continental European or Anglo-Saxon models that have developed stronger social cohesion and civil liberties. Europe, for all its faults, has much to teach us.

Detention without trial

Somewhere near the bottom of the pile in this country, judging by the rights they enjoy, stand some Algerians. There are about 17 of them (we don't know the exact number) and they have been held without trial for up to five years, some in jail and some under house arrest. Any who have been tried for an offence (the "ricin plot", for example) have been acquitted. All are branded terrorists, though the evidence has never been made known, even to them. Formally, they are awaiting deportation to their native country, where they fear they will be tortured or killed by a government with a record of such actions.

Several of them, as one might expect, suffer mental health problems. Two recently reached such a point of despair that they returned to Algeria rather than carry on here. They now have the role of miners' canaries - will they be arrested, tortured, killed? Such is the test of which is worse for these people: Britain or Algeria. Nothing has been heard from them, but even if they are at liberty now, no one can tell how long that will last.

Our government has been prevented from deporting these men because it has failed over many months to secure a guarantee from Algiers that they will not be tortured. That such a guarantee has not been forthcoming is surely eloquent in itself, but even if it were produced tomorrow that would give the men no real protection. It would be no more than a fig leaf to cover Britain's shame.

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