In the past week Sir Leon Brittan, the senior British EU Commissioner, Klaus Kinkel, the German foreign minister, Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman and others have all put on record fears that Britain will go into crucial negotiations with no flexibility, causing a crisis. The flood of anti-European sentiment that has accompanied the fish war between the EU and Canada has alarmed pro-Europeans and raised fears that much of what Britain has achieved in the EU may be undone.
Next year, the 15 states of the EU meet to change their rules. Britain's stance worries many, including some Conservatives. "If Britain shows too negative a hand, it would be Britain's loss," said Sir Leon at a lunch for British journalists. The rewriting of the treaty was an opportunity, not a threat to Britain, he said. "If we do not adopt a forward enough policy we will not be able to benefit from this opportunity."
The key issue that is likely to confront the Government in 1996 is the reduction in national vetoes in EU decision-making, according to senior diplomats in Brussels. This was raised by the members of the European Parliament's Socialist group last week, and a joint meeting of all Europe's Conservative and centre-right Christian Democrat parties ended with a statement that "most participants advocated the increased use of majority voting". Yet Britain has set its face resolutely against this step, which is presented as the loss of sovereignty.
In the week that the Government chose to trumpet a new vision of Britain in the world, it was perhaps an accident of fate that the country was able to show itself standing up to fight. In the EU-Canada row over fishing, Britain threatened to veto trade sanctions against Ottawa. Britain against the rest; the defence of the Commonwealth against the scurvy European; a refusal to be dictated to from Brussels; all these themes resonate well with the campaign against the EU. However, Britain's role in the fish war between the EU and Canada shows both the strength of its position, but also its limits.
The problem with the fishing row is that it has confirmed three of the most potent myths about Britain and Europe in British minds. Besieged Britain is a powerful image in a country that perceives itself to be different and remembers wartime isolation vividly. But in the Canadian case, though Britain has publicly led the field in opposing sanctions against Canada it is far from alone. Privately, several other states - probably most of the 15 - feel the same, but it is convenient to let London lead. This is a common situation. Because Britain is at one end of the debate, other states are often happy to slipstream behind.
The myth of the veto accompanies this: Britain is alone but Britain can stop them. The veto has, however, rarely been used by Britain in Brussels and then with little success. On occasions when Britain has been genuinely isolated, it has rarely won, even though it possesses the theoretical right to block. The other side of the coin is that Britain was very active earlier in the 1980s in advocating a removal of national vetoes, so that the EU could push through free trade legislation. On many, if not most, issues Britain is in the majority.
The third myth in the Canadian case is the Commonwealth card, the view that we have more in common with Canada than Spain. Most British people have never been to Canada, a country where fewer than 40 per cent of the population are of British origin and more than a quarter are French speaking. It has chosen closer relations with the US over trade ties with Europe in the last decade and has pulled out its armed forces from Europe. The British are far more likely to visit Spain, and indeed nearly 100,000 Britons live there.
There are signs that the supporters of Britain's EU membership are stirring themselves to push the country back on a more pro-European tack. Those within the Government who believe in Britain's EU membership have been "insufficiently vociferous", said Sir Leon. "We are not seeing a steady stream of authoritative voices of a broadly based kind pointing out the advantages of Britain's membership of the EU." Instead, he said, the Europhobe right were putting forward views that "may be inconsistent with membership of the European Union".
In a week when Britain's establishment focused on relations with the world, the row over Canada stirred echoes of Winston Churchill's view of Britain's place at the centre of three interlocking circles: the Commonwealth, Europe and the US. Fifty years later, it seems Britain still has problems working out how to bring those circles together.Reuse content