NEXT January Should See a Party to Rival the Millennium: Street Celebrations, Fireworks, Music, the Thames a River of Fire and a Thrilling Display of All the Pomp and Ceremonial of the British State

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NEXT January should see a party to rival the millennium: street celebrations, fireworks, music, the Thames a river of fire and a thrilling display of all the pomp and ceremonial of the British state. But when the 30th anniversary of our joining the [then] European Economic Community comes round early next year, how subdued this occasion will prove. According to that most reliably pro-EU of sources, the Financial Times, the official word has gone out that any fanfare will be low key - as if there would be a problem with over-enthusiasm.

This is an astonishing admission. Britain's growing economic and political integration with the EU has been the singlemost important political and constitutional change to Britain's standing in the world for 300 years. It was meant to have an immediate and lasting beneficial effect on our economy and our trading relations.

It has certainly had profound effects on our government, parliamentary democracy and legal sovereignty. The EU has directly touched and affected the lives of everyone in Britain. But far from this touch enjoying deep and unqualified support, the 30th anniversary is set to expose an uncomfortable truth: that few in Britain believe we have really gained much at all.

Nor can it be said that support for closer union has been a late developer and is now, after 30 years, catching up. On the contrary, as the case for that integration has rested on a set of claimed economic and business gains, the impact on British opinion of Germany's relentless decline and the policy gridlock across the euro zone has been all the more damaging. Support is as lukewarm as ever. As for that once-monolithic business enthusiasm for all things integration, where is it? Only last week Martin Taylor, the chairman of WH Smith and a highly respected voice on the business scene, said that for Britain even to think about joining the euro "would not merely be risky, but stark staring mad".

That such an unequivocal condemnation appeared in the Financial Times may be shrugged off as merely piquant were it not for this striking fact: it coincides with a near-total vacuum of hope and idea among those hitherto most supportive of the EU and all that it has come to stand for. Neither in the UK parliament, nor in Britain's Foreign Office or in the Treasury, or in the Cabinet Office or in those EU-funded think-tanks and policy institutes that now litter British political life, is there an inkling of an idea as to how to make the EU popular in Britain.

Still less is there any clue as to how to break the economic policy gridlock across the 12 countries of the euro zone. Calls for structural labour market reform such as those reiterated by the European Commission last week are now so tired that their credibility has gone. No one believes a word of it - not even those who speak it.

Almost as a diversion from the policy collapse within the EU has been the re-emergence of the Franco-German pantomime horse. Germany's chancellor Gerhard Schr|der, having now forgiven President Jacques Chirac for supporting the unsuccessful Edmund Stoiber in Germany's autumn election, heads a coalition too thin and diverse to undertake the reform required. Chirac, meanwhile, has resumed a posture of vain, self-important insouciance while his economy is dragged down with that of Germany's.

As striking as Martin Taylor's blunt conclusions about the euro was the analysis that accompanied it. The reality of the EU, he wrote, "is that it has shown itself not so much resistant to economic reform as utterly unreformable, even as evidence of peril mounts. …