It is sometimes hard to take seriously the pro-European slogan that Britain needs to be at the “heart of Europe” . After all throughout the history of our relationship with the evolving European Union we have almost always been on the edge, sometimes sniping, sometimes shouting loudly and often just sneaking off back across the channel with a nicely negotiated ‘opt-out’.

A significant section of political opinion, particularly Conservative political opinion, has remained openly hostile to closer integration in Europe yet even among those who would reject the label ‘Euro sceptic’ , there has been a good deal of, well, scepticism.

The arrival of the single currency, the euro, brings a halt to this very British approach. There is no chance to fudge this issue for eternity. Sooner or later we are in or we are out of the euro zone. There is not going to be a dual-currency and the fact that some Tories are now raising the prospect of leaving the EU all togther shows that we are reaching the decisive moment.

The only chance of continuing to be on the sidelines is to opt for the Daily Telegraph’s ‘country membership’ – getting what we can out of the single market while taking no responsibility for and getting no benefit from the wider social and political process. Besides being unacceptably selfish to our partners, that is clearly not an attractive proposal for the left being little more than a blatant attempt to ensure that the social benefits enjoyed by employees in Europe are kept well away from British workers. It simply hides an agenda to keep the poorer regions of the UK trapped in low-wage economies.

To most people on the democratic left then Europe has been a no-brainer. We are internationalists, we see much to be gained from integration and we like some of the alternative models on display in continental Europe. We don’t think that helping post-fascist Portugal and Spain become fully fledged market democracies or assisting in Ireland’s economic progress was a ‘waste of money’. On the contrary.

But the recent disputes over the Iraq war have thrown a spanner in the works. I like to think of myself as a Euro-enthusiast but that enthusiasm was sorely tested by the French behaviour in the UN security council and the anti-American postures adopted. Some on the anti-war left now talk of the EU as a ‘balwark’ against the US, taking comfort from the prospect of a return to a bi-polar world – not a vision to inspire those of us who value a positive relationship with the US.

Mirroring and at the same time, encouraging, this view is a new aggressive anti-EU tone on the American right. They see the EU as a French vehicle that aims to compete with them in the battle for global hegemony. The American right have rather grown to the idea of a unipolar world where they are the undisputed leader. A blatant example of this thinking was shown by Anglo-American conservative weblogger Andrew Sullivan who recently penned an item charmingly entitled “The Euro Menace”.

Sullivan warns tactically against the US being too blatant in its hostility to the EU project, less it weakens its influence over ‘friendly governments’ but says:

” At the same time, Americans need to wake up and understand the significance of this new rival to U.S. global power. No, it will not be a military threat. But it can be an enormous deadweight on U.S. power, as we saw earlier this year. And its anti-American timbre is unmistakable….. That’s the current challenge to U.S. foreign policy: how to prevent the new European constitution from becoming a reality, how to woo and keep the loyalty of pro-American European governments and states, how to save new Europe from the stultifying and malign embrace of the old. It may, alas, be too late to prevent the worst. But better late than never.

Of course the European consitution as of little relevance to the US being an entirely internal European matter. I suspect that what Sullivan means is how to stop greater integration becoming a reality. Sullivan is showing the fear that many on the US right now have of a stronger, more united Europe, a fear that may have economic as well as political roots.

Should that worry the European left? Should we care that the US might see the EU as a rival? Well, unlike some, I certainly don’t think we should aim for the EU to become a hostile opponent of the US nor should we wish to create that impression. But a Europe which is more powerful, more effective and more co-ordinated on the international stage should be something that progressives welcome – indeed it should be something that Americans who have whined about Europe “not taking its responsibilities” should also be pleased by. It is likely that in the future the EU may be able to reach where the USA does not wish, or cannot, go. On other occassions it may act in concert with the US and at times it may need to act diplomatically to impede ill-advised adventures from the US. If that frightens certain US right-wingers, well, let them be afraid.

What about Britain’s ‘special relationship’ with the US? Anyone serious about their politics has to recognise the importance of a constructive and friendly rapport with the US. But as we have seen time and again, the relationship can often be a one-way street and even if we gain more than we lose from remaining close to the Americans, it would be foolish for us to put all our diplomatic eggs in one basket. The ability to have a foot in both camps as an extraordinary position which, despite the problems of the past year, remains one which ultimately Britain can really benefit from.

The anti-European critics on the American right and the British Euro-sceptics also share common ground in their view of the EU as being some kind of statist nightmare, where all enterprise will be stifled by excessive legislation and that nightmare of nightmares the welfare state. The libertarians even like to put pictures of Stalin imposed on the EU flag. We are warned across the blogs that the EU lacks the democracy and liberty of the ‘Anglosphere’.

In which case the conservatives have to ask themselves why in the past two months the people of Hungary, Poland and the Czech Republic – who have tasted democracy and liberty for little more than a decade and, unlike the critics have experience of real Stalinism, have voluntarily opted to join this illiberal horror house?

As Will Hutton put it recently : Those who do not have liberty, or have won it only recently, know the EU is their friend not their enemy. Warsaw and so many of the other cities of Eastern Europe are just two and half hours away by plane. It is a revelatory flight – and it is one that should be mandatory for every enemy of the EU.

And add to that Bucharest, Bratislava, Zagreb and many other cities where governments, businesses, trade unions and the population at large have had their eye on the European prize since their liberation from dictatorship. Back in 1989 we, along with the rest of Western Europe, promised to share a ‘common European home’ with the people’s of the formerly communist East – how can we even think of betraying that commitment?

Yes there are problems with the EU structures. Yes, there is a tendency towards French-style ‘institution building’ and yes there are many other issues, such as Agricultural subsidies, that one could point to and see fault. But the left has never engaged with political or economic structures because we believe them to be perfect – after all we have spent decades working with the many flaws of the centralised British state and only now are we beginging to get results in reforming it. If we believe there are faults and even dangers in the EU project we owe it to ourselves and to the new states to remain in the middle of the battles fighting their and our corner.

Involvement with and reform of the EU should be the natural terrain of the left. The democratic left is and always has been made up of reformists, people who are convinced that political activity works and can deliver results. As one such reformist, Roy Hattersley puts it:

“There are only two possible European policy positions. One requires Britain to work away “at the heart of Europe” for policies that benefit Britain. The other follows a course so critical that it inevitably results in withdrawal. Tory logic can only lead to little England.”

It still is a no-brainer isn’t it?