Many of the reasons for this contradiction lie deep in British politics. `Europe' has been a contested domain for British politicians as both process and substance. To summarise very briefly, typically governments in office have sought to develop a more engaged European policy, while the alternating lead party of opposition has found `Europe' a persuasive and useful subject on to which to differentiate itself from the governing party. There has been a damaging cycle of acrimony, which, hardly surprisingly, has been reflected in ambivalent public opinion on European issues and an image of Britain as an unpredictable partner.
We might note here, since it is relevant to new suggestions being currently mooted for institutional reform, that the EU institutional process leaves little scope for out-of-office politicians from the Member States to be either informed about or involved in the development of EU policies. Opposition politicians have the freedom of ignorance from which to launch their criticisms of the EU and `Brussels'. The particularly adversarial character of the British political process reinforces this.
British reservations about engagement in the EU and its further development have related to both substance and process. Differences on substance have, over time, become increasingly less pronounced, which, in part, explains why British governments have, as they became more informed and more involved, engaged in the development of many EU policy regimes with more and more enthusiasm. Indeed, on a number of critically important EU issues British governments have been not only `regime-takers', but have also sought to be `regime-makers'. The British government at that time was among the earliest and keenest advocates of the single European market, just as the current government is of the `new European economy' paradigm outlined in the strategy agreed at the Lisbon European Council of March 2000. British governments have been keen participants in the development of European foreign policy co-operation (remember the London Report of 1981), and have latterly become one of the prime movers in the push towards increasing European defence autonomy. And there are other examples.
The image of the UK is, however, much coloured (both at home and abroad) by the focus on the issues on which the British remain disengaged-the EMU is the obvious current case in point. Hence, the assumption can easily-but perhaps wrongly-be made that British governments are likely to be followers rather than leaders on new integration issues.
Also relevant to the current debate is precisely Joschka Fischer's observation that the British find federalism an indigestible concept. It would, indeed, have been helpful for the British domestic debate if he and his advisers had succeeded in finding an alternative label for his recent propositions. In Britain, a country with a very different experience of state-building from that of Germany, many feel that federalism is perceived (however wrongly) as a mode of organising power hierarchically and top-down. The British experience is one of organic evolution in the relationships between the different levels and locations of governance. It is, thus, also one in which constitutional behaviour has been defined by evolving practice and acts of parliament, rather than by formal constitutional documents.
However, two new points are relevant here. One is that the current government, at least, is more inclined than its predecessors to accept that federalism is a normal, if sometimes puzzling, part of the rhetoric and discourse of many continental European politicians. Thus, there were no anguished rebuttals of Joschka Fischer's proposals. The other point is that the organisation of the UK as a polity is undergoing fundamental change, with the implementation of forms of devolution in Scotland, Wales and, perhaps, Northern Ireland. Thus, British politicians are being forced to think differently-and in more explicitly constitutional terms-about the ways in which policy powers are assigned to different levels of government-and also about the ways in which political responsibilities are, as a consequence, diffused between different political office-holders. In August 2000, for example, the UK government was able to maintain a grateful silence while the new Scottish executive grappled with an extraordinary catalogue of errors in administering final school examinations.
It follows from these new developments that the British government is able to contemplate the revived EU discussion about the assignment of powers to different levels of government (EU, Member State, sub-state) with fresher eyes. In contrast to the defensive British positions on subsidiarity of a decade ago, the current British government can now engage much more constructively with their EU partners on this subject. Thus, we might expect to see more nuanced British contributions on the cases for and against codifying the assignment of policy powers. Some in Britain will be in favour of lists in order to achieve a kind of clarity, while others will continue to argue for the merits of a more organic approach.
We might also note here that the British discussion on the proposed EU Charter of Fundamental Rights has precisely this quality. Voices (from) close to the government which are resistant to an over-codified, or overly binding, EU Charter are making their arguments not out of fundamental opposition to continental constitutionalism, but rather on the basis of how they think a Charter might work in practice.
What, then, can we conclude from this overview of British domestic politics? First, there continues to be a troublesome contrast of perspectives about the future development of the EU between governing and opposition politicians. Second, on the substance of further EU integration, we can expect the British government to contribute ideas and proposals for closer integration in some policy areas, whatever the continuing nervousness about the EMU. Third, on the forms and methods of integration, the British now have more open minds, although with a continuing instinct to prefer organic development to `constitution-led' blueprints.