Memo to Mr Blair: Europe could turn you into the new John Major

The early Major days are the most forgotten in recent politics, a heady time with record-breaking poll ratings
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THE GREAT Tony Blair European balancing act moves to Vienna. There he is, displaying an easy rapport with his fellow EU leaders, showing a new "engagement" with Europe. There he is again, battling for Britain over its rebate. How long can he be a good European and, simultaneously, the Prime Minister who refuses to cave in when "Britain's interests", as defined by a Eurosceptic press, are at stake? The answer lies in the experience of Blair's predecessor.

When John Major took over as prime minister he had no doubt that, in Europe, warm words and greater co-operation were needed to replace the Thatcherite handbag. Such a move was in Britain's self interest. Indeed so confident was he of his new direction that in his first year as prime minister rarely a speech went by in which he did not make his case. The following is typical:

"It is because we care for lasting principles that I want to place Britain at the heart of Europe. But partnership in Europe will never mean passive acceptance of all that is put to us. No one should fear we will lose our national identity. We will fight for Britain's interests as hard as any government has done before. I want Britain to inspire and shape Europe in future as decisively as we have over the single market. Then we will fight for Europe's interests too: not from the outside, where we would lose, but from the inside where we will win.'

Major was attempting to pick up the pieces after the final months of Euro-hysteria under his predecessor by being, as Tony Blair puts it now, "wholly engaged in Europe because it is in Britain's self interest to be so".

Indeed, there is no difference at all between the early Major declarations about Europe, and the responses Tony Blair has given in recent Prime Minister's Question Times to questions about tax harmonisation and the rebate.

There are, of course, big differences in the personalities and outlooks of these two. It is impossible to imagine Major making a speech in France in the native tongue of a Europhile audience, to give one example of the way in which Blair has occasionally wowed them in Europe. And Blair "engages" in Europe with most of his backbenchers looking on supportively, while Major made his "heart of Europe" speech in 1991 with the grieving Thatcherites reassembling for battle.

But the comparison between the two Prime Ministers is far from meaningless and contains an important lesson for Blair. For the experience of Major reveals that the balancing act which Blair is now attempting, and which his predecessor briefly attempted, is not sustainable. When the rhetoric of "Britain's self-interest" and being "fully engaged in Europe" is faced by the real substance of decisions and negotiations, it is rendered useless. For the Eurosceptic press regards "self-interest" as defeating those wretched Europeans on every occasion.

I use the term "early Major" because it is the most forgotten period in recent British politics, obliterated from our collective memories by the mire into which his government descended after the 1992 victory. The earlier period was quite different, the first, almost convincing attempt at building a post-Thatcher style of government. They were heady days, with record-breaking opinion poll ratings for Major himself. Part of the reconstruction was a more positive approach towards Europe, in style and in substance. As Blair has had to rebuild relationships in Europe after the dying years of Tory rule, so Major felt similarly obliged after the shrill "No, No, No"s of Thatcherite diplomacy.

Immediately Major went about mending fences with Kohl and others. He sounded constructive even about monetary union, arguing that it should be based on open and free markets and depend upon a much greater economic convergence. Certainly he did not attack it with a sledgehammer.

He tried to reposition his party as more pro-Europe. The extract quoted above is not from the famous "heart of Europe" speech he made in Bonn, with an appreciative Kohl by his side. He uttered those words to Conservative activists at a party conference in 1991. For a brief time the Tories under Major, and Chris Patten as party chairman, looked as if they could work with Europe.

In reality, behind the firm handshakes exchanged with other leaders, Major had not resolved how he could show to the Eurosceptic press and Tory MPs that being at the heart of Europe was in Britain's interests. But what does a prime minister do when the rest of Europe wants to move fast in a specific direction and he is opposed to the speed, and has big doubts about the destination? In Major's case, domestic politics and his own growing scepticism answered the question for him. He became the wielder of the veto. The noble aspirations were displaced by a beef war.

In using the same terms of debate as early Major, Blair faces similar difficulties. He is being sincere in regarding self-interest and co-operation within Europe as one and the same. The problem in terms of the domestic argument is that self-interest has become so firmly equated with never giving ground. The row over Britain's rebate has little to do about the level of our financial contribution. Blair knows that to give up 10 pence of it would be politically disastrous. Similarly the recent row over tax harmonisation has nothing to do with plans to centralise income tax or corporation tax, as the convoluted Blair/ Shroder joint statement made clear. But the British Government has to send out a less subtle message, as well. It is "No" to harmonisation, although in some areas of taxation it would make practical sense, and Britain would be a beneficiary.

At the moment such an argument would be too subtle. Instead only blunt messages are fed to a domestic audience that apparently wants to be a member of the EU, but only on terms that mean Britain always gets its way. Blair made a heartening attempt at Prime Minister's Question Time this week to present a more complex case when he explained that the debate over tax harmonisation within the EU had only just begun, and was already provoking many different views from the varying governments. In my view he got the better of the populist scepticism of William Hague. The logical consequence of the Tory stance is withdrawal from the EU.

Ultimately the argument that Britain's self-interest lies in the heart of Europe can be sustained only by making a politically agonising leap: sometimes, being at the heart of Europe means losing out in order to stay there. There is only one alternative route, which is to decide that Britain's self-interest means withdrawing from the heart of Europe and winning a few Pyrrhic victories for the benefit of domestic audiences in the process. This is the route that Major took. Look what happened to him.

The writer is political editor of the `New Statesman'