British general elections used to generate excitement in European capitals. The political choices seemed more stark than in continental Europe, especially when Margaret Thatcher challenged Europe's social and economic consensus during the 1980s. Since then, it has been fascinating to watch Britain's political establishment hacking itself to pieces over Europe.

When it comes to the UK general elections on May 5, it is difficult to find anyone in Europe's foreign ministries who expresses even polite excitement. There is a trivial reason, of course. Opinion polls have pointed towards a victory by Tony Blair, the prime minister, for some time. But I suspect that even the prospect of seeing Michael Howard, the Eurosceptic Conservative leader, in 10 Downing Street would fail to scare anyone in the European Union.

I believe the reason for the indifference is probably the perception that Britain has already disengaged politically from the EU.

Mr Blair may be outwardly more pro-European than Mr Howard, but in a way that no longer seems very relevant. When he took office in 1997, he promised to put Britain at the centre of Europe. He even appeared to be a natural leader of Europe's left, like Willy Brandt of Germany or Felipe González of Spain before him. It did not happen. In fact, during Mr Blair's time in office, British public attitudes towards Europe have become more poisonous than ever.

In the UK, the Eurosceptics have been winning the debate. More importantly, even the Europhiles themselves have turned Europhobic. I was reminded of this recently when I heard Jack Straw, Britain's foreign secretary, defend the proposed European constitution to parliament in London on the grounds that it curtailed future political integration and the powers of the European Commission. With pro-Europeans like Mr Straw, who needs Eurosceptics?

Britain's attitudes towards the EU have been deteriorating for some time: a critical point came at the EU summit at Maastricht in December 1991, when John Major, then prime minister, secured an opt-out from the single currency; and again in 1998, when Mr Blair decided to exercise that opt-out.

The decision not to join the euro was the catalyst for Britain's political disengagement from Europe. The euro is not, as some commentators occasionally seem to suggest, a minor project in the variable geometry of European integration. The establishment of the single currency was the most profound political act in the modern history of European integration. Membership of the euro involved a massive transfer in national sovereignty.

In the autumn of 1997, Mr Blair had a narrow window of opportunity to call - and win - a referendum on British membership of the euro. He procrastinated. The point of no return has been passed. The degree of freedom in choosing the precise timing of euro membership was always much smaller than British officials had believed. By mid-1998, the eurozone had already set up its institutions and rules of engagement without the UK. The eurozone and the UK have since diverged institutionally, economically and politically. The British economy has performed better than the eurozone, although not necessarily as a consequence of the decision to stay out of the euro. But even if the fortunes were to be reversed, I doubt that the case could be made for the UK to join the euro.

The real question is not whether Britain will find its way back to the heart of Europe, but how it will disengage. Will the UK manage to negotiate some form of associate status, as Mr Howard seems to suggest? Or, if the French manage to kill the constitution and let Mr Blair off the hook, how long will it take for the next political crisis to arrive?

It may be that a No vote in the French referendum on May 29 will deflect attention from Britain's relations with the EU for a while. It will certainly throw the EU into confusion and may put at risk some aspects of European integration. But France will remain a member of the eurozone if it votes No. The UK will not join it, even if it votes Yes. This is how far apart are the two countries. You can try to spin Britain's relationship with the EU as much as you like. In reality, the die was cast some time ago.

wolfgang.munchau@ft.com

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