The European Elections: Hurd says multi-track idea 'is already happening': Donald Macintyre detects a curious unity among the Europhobes

Politics is full of accidents. There is some evidence that Mr Major's closest circle did not expect his speech setting out his vision of a multi-track Europe at Ellesmere Port on Tuesday night to make quite the impact it did.

There is an equal amount of evidence that they are well pleased that it did so. For the immediate interpretation of it - heavily reinforced by Jack Cunningham, Labour's Foreign Affairs spokesman - that Mr Major was effectively suggesting a two-speed Europe in which Britian would remain in the slow lane - may not have been quite accurate. Indeeed Mr Major himself stressed in his speech last night that a 'flexible Europe' did not mean 'we must have a first division and a second division'. But it has had a strangely unifying effect on Mr Major's most Euro-sceptic critics.

The interpretation is also likely to play well with precisely that group of voters about which the Tories are most concerned in the current European election: the core supporters who are most likely to stay at home, many of them deeply suspicious of Europe and all its works.

Lord Tebbit's welcome on Wednesday night for Mr Major's speech may actually bring some of those voters out on Thursday. And that counts more at present - in elections on which Mr Major's future could still finally depend - than an adverse reaction in continental capitals.

The fact is that the 'flexible geometry' idea, at least as floated by Douglas Hurd in his speeches in Warsaw and Inverness over the past few weeks, is not quite the same as the notion to which Lord Tebbit extended his chilly embrace on Wednesday night. On the other hand it had been - before Mr Major's Ellesmere Port speech - genuinely welcomed by 'inside right' members of the Cabinet like Michael Howard as a concept that the party can unite around.

On the stump this week, Mr Hurd expanded in an interview with the Independent on what the government means by it. Mr Hurd insisted that the multi-track idea 'has been part of our thinking since Maastricht, it's part of the Prime Minister's thinking now. We think it's already happening'.

Mr Hurd reeled off a list of examples in which 'some do, others don't'. The Western European Union in which Britain plays a key role. Bosnia, in which Britain France, Spain and the Netherlands are key participants while others are not. The European Exchange Rate Mechanism where 'we don't others do'. And so on. And in answer to the question of whether Britain can withstand the pressure for further integration on issues that are matters for inter- governmental co-operation rather than EU competence, Mr Hurd cited deregulation and subsidiarity (or minimum interference, as he prefers to call it) as examples of where Britain had at first been isolated, but had then been shown to lead the way.

He argued, too, that just as Britain and France have worked closely on Bosnia, so they see eye to eye on the issue of the need to preserve a national veto. Admitting that the 'argument is not yet over' he adds, nevertheless, that the 'old-fashioned concept of the federal European state is not going to happen'. Mr Hurd cited - as an example of the importance of keeping foreign policy as a matter for inter- governmental co-operation rather than formal EU voting - a recent discussion on how far aid to the Ukraine shoud be tied to economic and politicial reform. 'It's very important that we are able to share an analysis, discuss it, go away and reflect on it and then reach a consensus.' The alternative was a Commission proposal inviting a vote - a process much more likely to create a damaging split.

Mr Hurd is braver than most of his Cabinet colleagues - including some of his more prominent fellow pro-Europeans - in saying that Europe is indeed more than simply a free-trade area or a single market. But he is also emphatic that not everything that happens in Europe has to be reflected in an EU institution that takes its decisions by majority vote on proposals made by the European Commission.

The big question is how far, if at all, his optimisim is justified about the future intentions of Britain's European partners. He points out that Chancellor Helmut Kohl has forsworn the idea of a superstate. For the moment, the debate over flexible geometry has two advantages for the Tories. First that the simplistic interpretation may help them a little on Thursday. Secondly, a bigger prize than that: it could - just conceivably - bring a measure of unity to the party on the issue that threatens to become the Corn Laws of the 1990s.

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Guru Careers: Software Developer / C# Developer

£40-50K: Guru Careers: We are seeking an experienced Software / C# Developer w...

Guru Careers: Software Developer

£35 - 40k + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Software Developer (JavaS...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant / Resourcer

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Commission: SThree: As a Trainee Recruitment Consu...

Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, HTML, CSS, JavaScript, AngularJS)

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: UI Developer - (UI, JavaScript, HTML...

Day In a Page

Abuse - and the hell that came afterwards

Abuse - and the hell that follows

James Rhodes on the extraordinary legal battle to publish his memoir
Why we need a 'tranquility map' of England, according to campaigners

It's oh so quiet!

The case for a 'tranquility map' of England
'Timeless fashion': It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it

'Timeless fashion'

It may be a paradox, but the industry loves it
If the West needs a bridge to the 'moderates' inside Isis, maybe we could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive after all

Could have done with Osama bin Laden staying alive?

Robert Fisk on the Fountainheads of World Evil in 2011 - and 2015
New exhibition celebrates the evolution of swimwear

Evolution of swimwear

From bathing dresses in the twenties to modern bikinis
Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

Sun, sex and an anthropological study

One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

Songs from the bell jar

Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

One man's day in high heels

...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

End of the Aussie brain drain

More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

Can meditation be bad for you?

Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine