Comment: Don't get the wrong message, Mr Hague

The key issues were never debated, because the pro side never engaged in the argument
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The Independent Culture
ELECTION RESULTS teach lessons and carry messages that are often more instructive than the campaigns that precede them. Last week's election for the European Parliament is no exception.

For Conservatives, this first taste of substantial success since 1992 offers reassurance that there is indeed life after death. Activists of every hue are understandably elated. Observers in other parties sense that the recovery of the centre right has indeed begun.

The immediate gain - and it is a very real one - is the emergence of a centre-right majority in the European Parliament, for the first time since 1984. This is good news for Britain - and indeed for all those who believe in the liberal free-market policies pioneered in this country in the Eighties. The gains by centre-right parties in other member states confirm that we have many natural allies on the Continent. With their help, there is important work to be done in shaping the policies of the new majority in the new Parliament.

Even for Tony Blair, ironically enough, this new centre-right majority could be a real advantage. Only two weeks ago he and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schroder, pledged themselves to a programme of deregulation and flexibility. If they are to carry this case with other heads of government, they will need the backing of the parliamentary centre right.

William Hague and his strengthened Strasbourg contingent also have an early lesson to learn. Already some new MEPs are urging withdrawal from the now dominant European People's Party Group, in favour of a ragbag alliance with the extreme right. It would be absurd for Conservative MEPs to throw away their new-found potential by marginalising themselves in this way. One consequence would be the exclusion of William Hague from the influential group of Christian Democrat/ Conservative leaders. Instead of being, as he would wish, "in Europe but not run by it", he would have become an outcast from the one group in which he can, and should, wield considerable influence.

A similar lesson needs to be learnt about the true significance of "euro- scepticism" in the domestic debate. Overt hostility to the euro may have encouraged some traditional Conservative voters to turn out last Thursday - though only to the extent of 36 per cent of that quarter of the electorate who troubled to vote. Clearly it did not enthuse the millions of uncommitted voters whom we need to convince in order to win a general election.

Investing the Conservatives with a single "anti-European" label risks alienating those crucial voters who want a positive role for Britain in Europe. Michael Foot's strident anti-nuclearism may have fuelled the Labour left in the Eighties. But it conspicuously failed to win any general elections.

So now a small but growing number of Tory MPs, who still cherish the hope of office in their lifetime, are arguing that to stake the entire future of the Conservative party on a negative result in a referendum on the euro is an extremely high-risk strategy. Yet that is the direction in which William Hague seems to be heading. Not long ago the future of the euro was said to be so hard to decide that we dared not risk an ans0wer in fewer than 10 years. Now he is set on "saving the pound". (Though perhaps only - as with devolution - until a referendum goes the other way?)

Hostility to the euro was a central feature of this Conservative campaign. But the key issues were never debated, because the pro side never engaged in the argument. Pro-European Conservatives were not prepared to sabotage our own party platform, and thus to undermine the whole, homogenised list of candidates who now help to control the Parliament. And the Labour party simply failed to campaign.

A referendum campaign, which would bring together pro and anti groups from both sides of the political spectrum, is the only basis on which the electorate can make an informed decision. Last week's contest, in which fewer than 10 per cent of those eligible to vote supported an anti- euro line, can hardly be said to settle the issue.

And so to the central lesson. The pro-European case cannot succeed by default. If Tony Blair, and many others in all parties, are convinced of the need to keep open the option of joining the euro (and world markets still expect that to happen), then that case needs to be made, made and re-made. Tony Blair did not win the argument over Kosovo by making it only on the last day. So, too, he will not win a referendum on the euro - or even win an election in which that remains a key feature - by staying silent on the issue until every other component has fallen into place.

We can make sense of the case for joining the single currency only if we put it in the context of a positive European future. Tony Blair and his Government must start providing the necessary national leadership on this issue by putting across the case for Britain's full-hearted engagement in the EU in terms of its political and economic importance to our national interest. Just as soon as they do so, those pro-European Conservatives who have loyally supported their party in this list-based European campaign will support him by making the positive case for Britain in Europe in its natural Conservative context.

And, in the general election campaign that lies between today and the referendum, we shall - as in every previous general election campaign - continue to argue our own case with conviction, and for the sake of our country.

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