Tory splits `marginalise' Britain in EU

Officials in Paris, Bonn, Brussels and other European capitals say Britain is becoming increasingly marginalised within the EU by its domestic political divisions over Europe.

The traditional problems in dealing with London have become more acute than at any time since the early Thatcher years, they say. British ministers, hands bound by rampant Tory Euro-scepticism, are losing the room for manoeuvre which is vital in Brusselsnegotiations.

In the words of one German official, "The pressures on the British government are clearly enormous. It now does not even have a true parliamentary majority. All of this could easily lead to a situation where arguments about the facts of the matter are nolonger really important."

In Bonn, there has long been a world-weary attitude when it comes to questions of Britain and Europe. Britain is regarded as being almost beyond salvation. But the recent Tory controversies have served to heighten German fears about the Euro-flakiness ofthe island nation.

In advance of the inter-governmental conference on Europe in 1996 ("Maastricht 2") German officials talk of a British "braking impulse" which is viewed "with deep concern". There are worries, too, that Britain is determined to see the 1996 conference as a mere "pit stop".

Officials in those countries that would normally be keen to strike alliances with Britain before 1996 - Denmark and the Netherlands - say they are reluctant to do so, because British ministers have so little to offer. "Their position is impossible. Policy changes from day to day. When we saw [the Foreign Secretary Douglas] Hurd last time, he could hardly say anything," said one official. Another added: "They have no room for manoeuvre. This is not diplomacy."

Britain has been conducting a campaign to woo the support of the French on the basis that they share some British concerns. But this seems to be having uncertain results.

"For France, being at the heart of Europe remains a necessity. For Great Britain it is just one option. Europe, seen from London, is not an end in itself but a means of attaining specific objectives at particular times." This is the view expressed by Le Monde's commentator Jean-Pierre Langellier on Tuesday. It neatly summarises the almost unquestioned view in France that the two countries start from different perspectives when they consider their place in Europe.

French officials allow that the British and French can make common cause , for instance, on defence, but only because the British have recognised that the US commitment to Europe may not last for ever. The French say they want a European defence policy because it is a good thing in itself.

The French accept their involvement in Europe derives in part from their constant fear that Germany will either grow too strong and dominant, or that it will drift away into Central European concerns and leave France to fend for itself. But it seems to put this - entirely pragmatic and self-interested - consideration into an entirely different category from Britain's attitudes to the EU.

The apparent readiness of the British Prime Minister to alter his European policy for domestic parliamentary interests does not help. The recent debate in Britain over the single currency has mystified many European onlookers. The assumption that Britaincan "stop" the process bewilders them. The alternative - a group of six or seven "core" nations proceeding on their own - should be taken more seriously in London, they say.

Senior officials in the European Commission have voiced grave doubts about the Government. Others fear that by undermining the legitimacy of Europe so energetically, the Tories are creating a legacy of anti-Europeanism that will not be easily erased.

Even if John Major's government collapses, and if the Labour Party gets into power, there are doubts whether the apparently pro-European Tony Blair and his party would remain so Europhile as they now appear. "One needs to be realistic," one official said. "Labour has managed not to have the discussion, in the same way as the Conservatives - but that may only be because it is not in government. That makes life easier for Labour."

Despite the widely expressed worries about Britain's full participation in Europe in the years to come, officials see some light amid the gloom. In particular, Britain's greater recent enthusiasm about European co-operation on defence is seen as positive.

The recent Brussels speech of the Defence Secretary, Malcolm Rifkind - billed by his own officials as Eurosceptic - was positive about European integration, and aimed principally at France, not the Tory party. But, asked one diplomat, "why did they have to say it was anti-European?"