A Europe that knows no boundaries

Two years plus of spin and counter spin on a referendum on Europe is going to bore the pants off all but the most dedicated followers of fashion on either side. So, before everyone has turned off, here's my foot in the door of the Great Debate.

I confess to being an unreformed and unrepentant European federalist. Peace and security are the most precious values in society and I believe that, if necessary, we should be prepared to pay a high price to secure them. Only by integrating potential enemies within the same political union can we guarantee that they cannot go to war against each other. The motivation for the otherwise unlikely Franco-German alliance, that led to the initial steps towards European unity, was very clear: three times within the previous eighty years the two countries had embarked on disastrous and lethal wars, and French statesmen such as Robert Schuman and Jean Monnet were determined to find a way of making it impossible for war to happen again.

They achieved it through entrenching their two countries within what is now the European Union. Next year we will celebrate sixty years of peace in Western Europe - the longest such period in its entire history. In Jean Monnet's words, "we are seeking to establish by peaceful means what Charlemagne, Napoleon and Hitler tried to do by force." It has succeeded more than anyone familiar with the past century could possibly have expected.

If further evidence is required one only has to look next door. Once Yugoslavia was forced to abandon the federal structure across its whole territory, it fell apart and the individual states turned on each other. Slovenia was able to be selfish and to opt out of Yugoslavia, but Croatia could not survive and Bosnia was rent apart. If only Yugoslavia had held together and entered the EU as one country the ethnic conflicts of the past decade could certainly have been avoided.

It is very easy to point to idiocies perpetrated by the European Commission but its remarkable achievements get far less publicity. For all its faults, the European Parliament is the only body in the world that is democratically elected from more than one country. In seven days time ten more countries will become members of the EU, including three which were part of the Soviet Union until 1991, another which was within communist Yugoslavia, and Poland, the Czech Republic and Slovakia which were members of the communist Warsaw Pact.

stability in Western Europe are huge. We are making giant steps towards de Gaulle's - and Gorbachev's - vision of a Europe extending from the Atlantic to the Urals. All the shibboleths of old time cold war politicians are being cast aside in favour of a political unity which holds out the hope of permanent peace and progress.

Blair, like all British Prime Ministers, voices the mantra of sovereignty. He feels that he has to hang on to a concept of national identity and to a vague but powerful perception of a British state in order to move forward tentatively and pragmatically towards greater European integration. But what is sovereignty? And what is the "nation state"? These are two of the most enduring myths of the past century. It really is bizarre to defend lines on maps drawn following colonial expansion, or after military conflict. Besides which, the idea of the nation state as we know it today, dates only from the late Victorian era.

A common language is part of the characteristics imposed, usually by force, on a state, but even as late as 1900 less than half the citizens of France spoke French. Hardly any of the countries within Europe have had the same borders within the past century. Certainly the UK has not, and our island heritage aids and abets an idea of national sovereignty which would be regarded with bewilderment on the mainland where it is often difficult to realise that one has crossed a national boundary.

The very idea of sovereignty is flawed. Our membership of NATO greatly curtails our sovereignty. And ask anyone concerned with music which composers they admire, and they will name Mozart and Beethoven. Ask any artist the same question and they will name Rembrandt and Renoir. Ask a footballer which teams he admires and you will get Real Madrid and Inter Milan. We have a European culture and a European history. Our handicap is the channel and we need to have the vision and the courage to surmount that geographic disability. National boundaries are drawn by politicians, not by God, and we need to regard them as porous, temporary and pragmatic.

We are faced with huge issues that cannot be dealt with within a single country. Ecological imperatives require global co-operation. Global capitalism demands supranational law. International terrorism cries out for international action. Why then retreat behind ineffective national boundaries? This is the moment for vision and leadership. Of course it is easy to concentrate on the rate of VAT or on the exchange rate of the Euro, but we need to look beyond our pockets and seek a peaceful and secure future for our grandchildren. It is not a choice between America and Europe but it is a question of a powerful Europe able to be equal to the USA. Frankly, I want my government to negotiate the best deal on the European Constitution - and I'll then accept whatever is on the table.

21 April 2004