BRITAIN IN THE WORLD: Europe gets in the way as Major reaches for the world

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The Independent Online


Diplomatic Editor

The British Government's attempt to pursue a global policy, while avoiding the subject of Europe, floundered yesterday, as the conference on "Britain in the World" returned constantly to the question of Britain's role in Europe.

Opening the one-day conference in London, John Major said the debate in Britain had "focussed far too narrowly on the internal workings of the European Union".

In his speech, the Prime Minister's only mention of Europe was prefaced by references to Britain's sovereignty and "national peculiarities.

"We work closely with our partners in the European Union which is essential to our prosperity and security", he said.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, was only slightly more discursive: "We believe in a European Union which looks outwards, expands and extends the real benefits it has brought to us. It would be perverse to turn our backs on these benefits.

"The single market, the impetus for deregulation, making Europe more competitive, our common international trade policy ... all these are examples of a Europe which is strong because it acts together."

But he finished his remarks with the statement: "We have taken the fundamental decision to join the European Union, and it is not going to be reversed."

The Government's defensiveness over Europe allowed Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, to sound a clearer note. He said he was uneasy at the suggestion that Britain could somehow go round the world "without passing Europe".

He said: "Let us not forget that Europe is now the home base for our foreign ventures and that we will not build a sound global strategy if we neglect its European foundation."

There was a dearth of Euro-sceptics at the conference, which brought together about 700 diplomats, businessmen, politicians, journalists and academics. One of the few who expressed doubts about European economic unity was Haruko Fukada, deputy chairman of Nikko Europe plc, who said she doubted Japanese companies would pull out of Britain if Britain remained outside the proposed European monetary union.

Arguing that Japanese companies invested because of Britain's skills and infrastructure, she said: "On the whole I suspect that Japanese investors would actually prefer Britain to stay outside the single currency."

Miss Kukada was challenged by several speakers who insisted that Japanese investment only came to Britain because of the European connection.

Dr Horst Teltschik, on the board of BMW and formerly in the German foreign ministry, put the case for Britain in Europe: "The truth is short and sweet," he said. "Britain needs Europe and Europe needs Britain. We want you in."

Peter Bonfield, chairman of ICL plc, speaking for British business, said the logic of a single market in Europe led to a single currency. "I am not much concerned whether we trade in sterling, Deutschemarks, dollars or ecus," he said. "What I want is a stable currency and sustained low inflation.

"No one can claim that sterling has been stable of the last 25 year... If EMU can provide the stability that Britain needs to encourage investment from home and abroad, let's make sure it happens as soon as it can be done, without economic shocks and leaps in the dark."

As expected, 700 people grappling with the future of Britain did not produce a blueprint for a future foreign policy. The conference is supposed to lead to a public debate and comments will be mulled over by the Royal Institute for International Affairs, which organised the conference. But the meeting did strike a chord on Britain's lack of self-confidence in the world. It was significant that the speaker who got the most laughs was a German. Josef Joffe, foreign editor of Sddeutsche Zeitung, commented that recent British diplomacy had reversed the American saying, "You can't win them all," to "You can't lose them all."

The Prince of Wales, the guest speaker at lunch, praised aspects of Britain abroad, aid agencies and the cultural diplomacy of the arts, although back in the conference chamber there was a fierce discussion about government policy and what constituted British culture.

Although the star speaker, Henry Kissinger, former US secretary of state, spoke more about US foreign policy than Britain's, he remarked to journalists that Britain had made a mistake after the Second World War, in not getting more involved in Europe.

"Britain made a mistake in not going into Europe early," he said. "I would like to see Britain engaged in Europe." But he said he did not think a Maastricht-style Europe, integrated from the Vistula to Portgual, would work. "The more you integrate Europe, the more it will be dominated by demagogic and bureaucratic elements. It is difficult to see what coherence it would have, except to be anti-American.

"I believe more in a confederal Europe than a federal Europe," he added. "What I would like to avoid is Gaullist policies pursued with British methods. That would be a lethal combination." Dr Kissinger said that the special relationship, which US once had with Britain, should be transferred to Europe as a whole.

He said: "I regret that it isn't what it used to be. The relationship was not particularly special in my day. The British role did not depend on the weight it could throw around, but the British made themselves extremely useful."