The media focus on the Blair speech this evening in Oxford centres on British ambivalence towards the European Union, and his view that the time is right for Britons to embrace Europe.
"Europe has emerged from its darkened room, it has a new generation of leaders, a new consensus is forming,” he is cited as saying by Reuters, reflecting the general “take” on his speech. “Yes, there is still a debate to be had, but the argument in favour of an open Europe is winning."
But that is the "up front" message. The sub-text is more important and I do not know which scares me most. It is a toss up between Blair's overwhelming ignorance of the nature of the European Union he professes so much to love, or his absolute, dogmatic rejection of the Eurosceptic case, and his determination that, come what may, we are staying in "Europe".
Turning to the latter, this comes at the end of what is a long speech by modern standards – over 4,000 words – where he tells us that we are part of a mythical construct he creates during his speech, a "new Europe". "We are part of it," he says, "in at the ground floor. It's where we should have always been. Now we're there, we should stay there." Taking no prisoners at all, he continues:
There is no other way for Britain. Britain won't leave Europe. No Government would propose it. And despite what we are often told, the majority of the British people, in the end, would not vote for withdrawal. So we are in it. And it is changing. And in a way we have sought and fought for. The manner in which we originally joined the European project has dogged us for too long. From now on, let the manner of our staying in define us.Note the definitive sentence, unequivocal in its meaning: "So we are in it". It has an air of finality that says, like it or not (and I really don't care which) we're in it for keeps. And, although he confidently declares that the British people "would not vote for withdrawal", there is not even the slightest hint that he is prepared to put that assertion to the test. Our ruler has spoken.
As to his lamentable ignorance of the construct, this is the defining issue, as he bases his vision for the future on his knowledge of the European Union of the past, and its origins – to which he devotes the first part of the speech.
"From the beginning," he says, bemoaning the focus in institutional reform, "the drive in Europe was always for more institutional integration." That much is true, but Blair goes on to say that, although this was not just natural but necessary at the outset, "it is worth recalling: the political vision of a single market was articulated first; the change in powers then fashioned to deliver it."
Therein lies his fatal misunderstanding of the very nature of the beast. It was never the case that there was a "political vision" of a single market. The original Salter/Monnet design was not a "single market" but a customs union, for the same reason that Bismark elected for one – his zollverein. In order to administer common external tariffs, a central government was needed. In Bismark's case, this was his instrument for uniting Germany, in the case of the founding fathers of the EU, it was their instrument for uniting Europe.
In other words, what Blair calls a "single market" was and remains a means to an end, using economic mechanisms that had as their ultimate objective, political union – the process that academics call neo-functional integration.
But, based on his fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the "project", Blair's thesis is that, as was the "single market" considered first and the rules then devised to make it work, so too should a "new Europe" operate in the same way.
Give people "a Europe-wide programme to beat organised crime coming in from Europe's borders and they will support it," he declares. "People will not buy more Europe as an end in itself. They will ask; why and what for? But answer those questions well and they will buy it as a means to an end they understand."
The trouble is that all too many of us understand that in the "real" Europe, the Europe of the European Union, there is only one core policy – political integration. Everything on offer is designed either to sweeten the pill, or smooth the process towards that ultimate goal. Blair might think that we can "co-operate" – and he uses that word often - to produce "a Europe-wide programme to beat organised crime", but the colleagues will always measure it in the light of how far it progresses the integration agenda.
Co-operation, of course, is not on that agenda. The transition of powers from member states to the commission, via the "gateway" of the Council of Ministers, might need co-operation, but it is the co-operation of the damned. Once the powers are given away – in perpetuity - co-operation is no longer needed. The commission is in a position to instruct, demand and sanction. Co-operation becomes compulsion.
Therefore, it does not matter whether there is a "new consensus", as Blair asserts. This just means a different set of people at the table, but the game goes on as before – the steady attrition of the power of the member states, and its gradual accumulation by the commission. Like it or not, "Open Europe" is not winning - it does not even exist. The pace might have slowed a little, and the direction is more uncertain, but the integration agenda remains.
But that does not mean we have to accept Blair's prescription. He may be blind. He may be ignorant. And while, in his ignorance, he can assert that "there is no other way for Britain," he is wrong. There is another way.