Right product, wrong marketing

They have tried to sell us Europe with lofty rhetoric about federalism, but it's the wrong pitch and

A spectre is haunting Europe - the spectre of federalism undelivered. The ghost of Jean Monnet and his dreams of a European nation don't just provide easy knocking-copy for Eurosceptic election addresses, they are preventing pro-Europeans from understanding the EU we have and building the Europe we need.

Everywhere in the European lexicon we see the elusive dream of a country called Europe. The Euro-elite's sparkling new buildings are draped in blue and gold flags, and Beethoven's Ninth Symphony is the lift-muzak of choice. They draft communiques about political union, economic government and a common foreign and security policy. They have made us citizens of Europe, represented by a European Parliament, carrying European passports and awaiting the jangle of the euro in our pockets.

But the shallow trappings of statehood are just that. Political union in the Maastricht treaty is just Euro-speak for regular meetings of EU foreign ministers. Economic government really means co-ordinating a small range of policies. The common foreign and security policy remains aspirational - it covers barely more than joint declarations and, without the Americans, couldn't do a thing in Kosovo or Bosnia. And European citizenship brings little beyond the right to vote in local and European elections for the 2 per cent who settle in another EU country, when most of us don't even want to vote in our own.

The landslide victory of the "don't know/don't care" party in the European elections is just the latest symptom of the damage inflicted on the European project by the gulf between lofty fed- eral rhetoric and the mundane reality of interdependence.

Every five years, a parliament with greater powers and responsibilities suffers the indignation of ever lower interest across Europe. And the reason most people don't vote is no puzzle. Psephologists can debate whether Kosovo, the missing "kick the bastards out" factor or new Labour's inexperience in PR elections was most important in knocking another 10 per cent off the turnout this time. But one-in-three voting is par for the course in our European elections. Most people need more than civic duty to motivate them to vote in elections and simply can't see how the European Parliament (which neither elects a government nor makes legislation) will affect them.

We know from polls that no more than a quarter of the population is strongly interested in "Europe" and that these voters are overwhelmingly sceptical. The other three-quarters neither know nor care much about "Europe" - for them, it ranks far behind crime, health, education and jobs.

The European Parliament is important, even if it doesn't set the public imagination on fire. It acts as a check on bad legislation, oversees the EU budget, scrutinises the Central Bank and monitors the workings of the commission. In these terms, it is increasingly successful. As it becomes more significant, it will help the EU work better. What holds it back is that friend and foe alike judge it against the wrong yardstick. It can never be the equivalent of the Bundestag or the House of Commons.

The parliament's crisis of expectations symbolises a deeper malaise at the heart of European integration. People know that the EU has problems: a lack of capacity to deal with the major issues such as defence and, above all, a lack of legitimacy because Europe's citizens feel disconnected from the decisions made in their name. But we are looking in the wrong place for the solutions.

The problem is that pro-Europeans have accepted the Eurosceptic assumption that legitimacy can be delivered only on the model of the nation state - and so they want Europe to become one. The debate is paralysed by an image of Europe as a federal house three-quarters built, where its owners ran out of money, or political will, before the roof could be built. While the Eurosceptics want it down, their opponents think that "one more heave" will solve our problems. Electing the commission as a European government, giving the European Parliament federal powers, turning the Council of Ministers into a senate, making the Court of Justice a supreme court and enshrining it all in a European constitution - these are seen as the only solutions to Europe's problems. But nation-building cannot provide the solution - it is part of the problem. Presenting the EU as a nation in construction simply fuels people's fears of homogeneity: the sense that Europe is an unsolicited imposition, rather than an organic response to the common problems we face. But the most damaging legacy of this approach is that it paralyses creativity.

Pro-Europeans must escape this blind alley by developing a new model of European integration. Europe's legitimacy problem won't be solved by giving more powers to the European Parliament. The existing EU is a network, not a federal state in the making. It shares power horizontally between national governments, European institutions, executive agencies and non-governmental organisations. This makes it a unique political innovation which could allow members to combine the security and prosperity of a big country's markets, currency and global clout with the flexibility and powerful identity that small countries thrive on. The strengths of "Network Europe" would be damaged by centralising power in a single place and devolving it according to the pre-ordained blueprint of a European constitution. Instead we must focus on two challenges.

First, capacity. Polls show that a majority across the continent wants European, not national, action on the environment, foreign and defence policy, international crime, terrorism and drugs. We should look at how to solve these common problems and let institutional reform follow that. Otherwise we'll be stuck haggling about how integrated Europe should become in the abstract, rather than debating what Europe should be doing.

Then we must look at how the EU can be connected with its citizens. The answer is to bring politics into the institutions that set the European agenda: the commission and the Council of Ministers now need reform more than the parliament does.

Monnet's ghost may still haunt us, but he would approve if we can reject conventional wisdom to seek innovative solutions to the problems of our age. Pro-Europeans of the world, unite - we have nothing to lose but our confusion!

Mark Leonard is director of the Foreign Policy Centre. His pamphlet "Network Europe: a new model of European integration" is published on 4 July

This article appears in the 21 June 1999 issue of the New Statesman, Better to shop than to vote