In an unusually robust speech, the Prime Minister told a London meeting of the Conservative Group for Europe that there was a simple choice: 'Outside Europe, Britain can survive; inside, we will thrive.'
Mr Major said membership was not without its problems. 'We joined late. We didn't make the rules. A lot of them don't suit us.'
But he said that the Maastricht treaty had been used as 'a scapegoat for the varied and nameless fears about Europe', most of them unrelated to the treaty. 'I have never pretended that Maastricht is perfect, but, warts and all, Maastricht makes Europe better.'
Turning then to the centralisers, he said he did not see Britain as a cog in a centralised European super-state; a picture painted by Baroness Thatcher and other EC critics.
'Of course, the Brussels centralisers haven't all gone away. But they are now running against the tide. A tide that will flow ever more strongly in the enlarged Community we ensured at Edinburgh. The idea of a centralised Europe had resonance in a Community of the Six. But for 12, soon 16, and eventually 20-plus nations, it is a grandiose doodle. It is not what the people of Europe want. We Conservatives must have the confidence and the sharp-edged determination to stay in the heart of the European debate, to win a Community of free, independent members. The nations must be free-standing - a colonnade, not a set of bars.'
Mr Major then turned to the British defeatists, saying that the Community was 'a small sea of perpetual negotiation', shaping its future by alliances between governments and ministers. Many who fear and oppose Europe,' he said, 'are like the fat boy in Pickwick. They want to make your flesh creep. They think we are always going to lose the argument in Europe. That is defeatist and wrong. We learnt to swim in that sea long ago.'
Curiously depicting Lady Thatcher's preferred alternative to the EC - association with an American free trade area - as 'a sugar-coated turnip' Mr Major said that EC opponents were moved by frustration. 'Frustration that we are no longer a world power. Frustration that nowhere is the nation state fully sovereign, free to conduct its policies without concerting with ruddy foreigners.
'There is frustration that some of the fixed and treasured aspects of our national life are subject to seemingly relentless change. They practise a sort of phantom grandeur, a clanking of unusable suits of armour.'
Mr Major said the country could not afford to submit to such 'despotism of nostalgia'.
He also dismissed as nonsensical the 'sly argument' that those who supported Europe put Britain's interests second. 'It's precisely because we put Britain's interest first that we need to be in there, shaping the new Europe. A new Europe that is larger, more open and less intrusive.
'That's not throwing away history, that's not knocking down traditions. We are digging straight ditches and putting layers of bricks into them - what builders call a foundation.'
But Mr Major added that those who said Europe was only about economics - 'a tower of brass' - forgot the gift of two generations of peace.
'The peace we have had in the West was not reached by the turn of a card. The ancient hatreds were composed and the ancient enemies conciliated with fearful singularity of purpose. Let's not forget that when we joined the Community, Spain, Portugal and Greece were still governed by men in sunglasses and epaulettes. The dictators were booted out. Stability and democracy have been locked in - by membership of the Community.'
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