This is an important time for the European Union, and for the UK's position within it. The two are not unrelated, of course. The enlargement that we are celebrating this week extends the EU to countries which many of us grew up to regard as the enemy, as components of a bloc that stood against everything that we believed in.
The fact that we are now welcoming them in to sit around the same table, to discuss and agree on important issues that affect us all, is a remarkable achievement. It is remarkable not least because they have had to go through a difficult process of adaptation to the EU's values and standards in everything from the functioning of their judicial systems to the regulation of their agricultural markets and the treatment of their sewage.
Some of the measures they have taken will seem far-reaching, some anodyne and commonplace. That is the nature of the EU. It does, as Douglas Hurd once noted, reach into every nook and cranny of national life. The new member states have accepted that, in full knowledge of the obligations that they are taking on. The UK, too, has never been under any illusions about its commitment, both at the time of joining, in the 1975 referendum, and in the subsequent series of treaties that have seen us debate and accept the case for working together on a wider and wider range of issues.
It will not all be easy. Enlargement presents a challenge to the European Union's status quo. The EU's institutions already creak a little under the strain of working with 15 countries. They will be severely tested by working with 25, and they will have to adapt. But that adaptation should be beneficial, making us re-examine our accepted ways of working, and forcing us to focus more clearly than we do now on the areas where efforts at a European level genuinely add value, and where they simply duplicate work that could best be done locally or nationally.
We now face a new referendum, on the latest version of the treaty to be negotiated. As an advocate of parliamentary democracy, I regret that decision. But I also recognise that now more than ever it is vital that we make good a worrying shortfall in our education about and understanding of the European Union.
Historically, we have done too little to educate our children about the systems of government that shape their lives. As a national politician, I came face to face with the limited understanding that many people had of the institutional structure of local and national government. The phenomenon is even more marked at the level of the European institutions that inescapably matter to us. That ignorance creates a vacuum, which an irresponsible media is all too ready to fill with half-truths and outright invention.
Enlargement is a good example of this process. I have watched with growing horror, and then anger, as tabloid newspapers with a xenophobic agenda have tried to turn a historic development in European history into a scare story about mass immigration.
That betrays a deliberate ignorance about the efforts that the new member states have put in, the state of their economies, and about the fundamental economics of immigration. Such newspaper campaigns work to an extent because they prey on their readers' fears and prejudices, which are in turn built on a lack of knowledge.
Schools, of course, are our first line of defence against such pernicious nonsense. "Europe" presents a particular challenge to teachers trying to find ways to excite their students and motivate them to learn. The processes can be arcane and the source material dull, but not always, and the outcomes matter.
It's clear that children have a lively and active interest in many areas of politics, and an appetite for discussion of the issues that they perceive as mattering to them. Perhaps the problem lies in connecting faraway meetings and lengthy treaties with active political debate at home.
I hope that the greater consciousness of European affairs aroused by enlargement and then a difficult national debate on the new constitution will provoke a renewed interest in how the European Union works, and about the fellow citizens that we share it with. We should grasp the opportunity to explain.
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Chris Patten is European commissioner for external relations