Next month’s European elections are unlikely to be decided on European issues. But as Europe is the one foreign policy area where William Hague has said he has major differences with the government it is important to clarify what is at stake. As Conservatives commemorate the 30th anniversary of Mrs Thatcher’s election in 1979, they would do well to remember one reason it all ended in tears was Europe.

The year ahead is crucial for the European Union. Can we strengthen the single market, despite the economic crisis, and so play our part in ensuring that there is no global slide towards protectionism? Will Europe lead the world to a deal on climate change to replace Kyoto? Can we make international supervision of the banking system more effective? My answer to all these questions is yes. But we can only reach this high level of achievement if the UK stays at the centre of things, shaping the EU debate as Gordon Brown has done during the economic crisis.

In foreign policy, equally important questions face us. The EU must decide the next steps for accession negotiations with Turkey and the countries of the western Balkans. We must reach out further to countries to the east and south. We must establish for the first time an economic and political partnership with Pakistan. We must take decisions — topical ones now — on whether to offer preferential trade with Sri Lanka. We will decide whether to build on the success of European security and defence policy missions in Chad and in the Gulf of Aden.

European foreign policy is already a reality. We shouldn’t be afraid of it. It doesn’t and shouldn’t replace national foreign policy. And it is nonsense to argue, as does the Tory defence spokesman, Liam Fox, that it is a threat to Nato. The Secretary General of Nato and President of the United States take precisely the opposite view. A more effective EU defence policy is a complement to Nato — just look at the partnership in Kosovo.

But while the EU is the largest single market in the world, it is too often a source of frustration to friends for the hesitant way it approaches its global role. That is why I want the Lisbon Treaty finally to pass this year. Then the EU can rationalise its foreign policy work under a High Representative, supported by an External Action Service, with both answerable to the 27 member states of the EU. And our summits with the USA, Russia and China will become a genuinely strategic dialogue led by a permanent President of the European Council.

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European foreign policy is both a reality and a necessity. If it did not exist, we would be struggling to create it. The question is whether it has a strong British stamp. And this is where Tory plans are so dangerous.

In the debates on the Lisbon Treaty Kenneth Clarke, then in free-thinking mode, made a devastating intervention against Mr Hague’s policy that he would ‘not let matters rest’ if the Lisbon Treaty passed. He was clear what the alternatives were: ‘the repudiation of a treaty that this country has ratified; an attempt to renegotiate or reopen that treaty; a parliamentary process of some kind; or a referendum.’

The Tories are travelling very light on European policy (as on others). But last week Mr Hague said that on day one in the Foreign Office he will focus on a Bill to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, if the Treaty has not been passed, or other measures to impede the Treaty if it has. This is a crowd-pleaser in the Tory party, but it is suicidal when it comes to British influence and British interests.

Leave to one side that our parliament has actually passed the Lisbon Treaty. The Tory policy is dangerous for four reasons.

First, it restarts an institutional debate in Europe when that is the last thing the people of the UK need. Gordon Brown negotiated an agreement at the December 2007 European Council that passage of the Lisbon Treaty would be accompanied by a self-denying ordinance against any further institutional tinkering before 2017.

Second, not content with isolating Britain from every mainstream political grouping in the European parliament through their decision to withdraw from the European People’s Party, this policy isolates Britain from every other government in Europe. Mr Hague says he is a great enthusiast for some European action, but not for European institutions. But the idea that we will get anywhere on extending the single market, driving forward enlargement, or reforming the budget if our flagship stance in foreign policy is to destroy the Lisbon Treaty is self-delusion.

Third, Mr Hague’s political gamesmanship risks destroying our special relationship with the US. President Obama has said very clearly that, ‘America has no better partner than Europe. Now is the time to join together, through constant co-operation, strong institutions, shared sacrifice and a global commitment to progress.’ Secretary of State Clinton has looked to Europe for active partnership as the new administration seeks to reset relations with Russia and Iran, and as new and bolder goals are defined for Afghanistan and the Middle East.

If Britain moves itself to the margins of Europe I can draw no other conclusion from my work with the US administration than that Britain’s special relationship with the US will become a piece of historical nostalgia — dusty bunting hauled out to adorn official occasions, not the lifeblood of our everyday diplomatic thinking. The UK’s diplomatic, military and intelligence assets are valuable to the US, but without the political weight to drive Europe forward we are a far less useful ally.

Fourth, a referendum held once the Lisbon Treaty is in force and has been passed by all 27 countries — or some other mechanism to satisfy Tory scepticism about Europe — can only have one outcome, namely the renegotiation of the terms of Britain’s membership of the EU. That is because once the Lisbon Treaty is in force, it no longer exists as the Lisbon Treaty but is consolidated into the founding treaties of the EU.

What the UK really needs is a European Union confident in its sense of achievement and bold in its ambition, not a body hobbled by institutional squabbling inflamed by politicians who have never believed in its potential.

William Hague has written a well-received book on the life of William Pitt. He will therefore know Pitt’s aphorism that Britain should provide an example to Europe. His current approach threatens a unique double whammy: bad for Europe and bad for Britain.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated