Major forewarned and forearmed: Leaders prepare for a shock-free EC summit

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The Independent Online
WILL THERE be an ambush awaiting John Major in Brussels this Friday? A European summit is to bring together the leaders of the Twelve, and it is occasions like this when British prime ministers have to watch their backs.

Margaret Thatcher was famously sandbagged in 1989 over the single currency, something that left a firm imprint on her career. But, if the British policy machine is working, Mr Major should have little to fear. One of the principal lessons of the past few years has been that no prime minister should ever again have to walk naked into the conference chamber, with nasty surprises awaiting them.

The first principle of this diplomacy is: forewarned is forearmed. British intelligence-gathering is more active than in 1989. Sir John Kerr, Britain's permanent representative in Brussels, is supposed to be wilier than his predecessor Sir Richard Hannay, who retired in 1990, and a better listener, according to his colleagues.

Secondly, the British are far more engaged in the policy process. Mrs Thatcher became almost dangerously isolated. Under Mr Major, more bridges have been built, notably with Germany. At the same time, he has been careful to draw the line at certain points - over extensions of EC policy on social issues, for instance - but to explain and build constituencies of support while he does so.

A British agenda is the third tool, and potentially the most important. Mr Major has set out his views on how Europe should develop, notably in a recent article in the Economist. In a nutshell, the EC should be wider, with more member states, but not deeper - forget full federation. It is not reducing the number of currencies that matters, but increasing the number of jobs. There is an active Whitehall policy commando putting together future ideas for the Community. And there are active attempts to sound out opinions about Europe, in Britain and abroad.

Events have tended to favour the British approach. There has been a perceptible scaling-down of ambitions in the EC over the past year, as economic crisis, the turmoil in the European Monetary System and a political backlash against Maastricht has hit every country, not just Britain.

By trying to shape future debates about the Community, Britain now believes that it has helped to pre-empt any surprises even when, for instance, an Intergovernmental Conference is convened in 1996 to discuss institutional reform. British officials in London and Brussels talk of this as more of a 'pit-stop' than a fully fledged re-engineering. Increasingly, other countries agree.

So when the EC leaders meet in Brussels to launch the Maastricht treaty - it comes into force on 1 November - Mr Major can expect few unpleasant shocks. There should be no federal leaps of faith, no sudden attacks on monetary union, no initiatives to shake the Conservative Party to its roots, according to officials of most EC countries. The British minimalist approach to Europe is getting a much more favourable reception than even a year ago.

Equally, there are signs that Britain's efforts to sell this idea may be hitting trouble. The Economist article irritated some countries considerably, both by its content and its tone. Trumpeting the success of the British vision at the party conference may have helped Mr Major with his own ranks, but the triumphalism exasperated others.

One of the principal methods of spreading the message and of gathering information has been increasing networks of contact between Conservative politicians - MPs and Euro-deputies - and their colleagues in other European countries, especially Germany.

Michael Portillo's conference comments about purging federalists alarmed the Conservatives' allies in the Christian Democrat parties of Europe. And it was the Christian Democrats who, four years ago, hit Mrs Thatcher over the back of the head with a sock filled with billiard balls.

At this week's summit, it is unlikely that any of Mr Major's European colleagues will try to rock the boat, which has only just docked after a year at sea in stormy waters. But Jacques Delors, the President of the Commission, is said by diplomats to be on fine form. He leaves his job next year, and has little to lose. Personal attacks by British ministers have annoyed and irritated him. He has already hit back at John Major in thinly veiled language.

While Maastricht was still being ratified, Mr Delors largely kept his own counsel. But now he may feel it is time to end his silence. With the smug tones of the Economist article fresh in their memories and the rhetoric of the Conservative Party conference still ringing in their ears, some of the others may join in.