Oh do shut up about Europe! Why did the Tories abandon the wisdom of Thatcher and Major?

A Tory veteran of the party's internal squabbling over Europe says that the EU may be a nightmare, but the only pragmatic approach is to engage with it intelligently

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The Independent Online

In the current “crisis” over the EU budget - with vote in the Commons today - many so-called Eurosceptic MPs have been sounding off all over the place. Their views maybe deeply patriotic (no problem with that) but most of them have never actually had to sit at the top table where real decisions are made - as Margaret Thatcher did.

It was Margaret Thatcher who signed the Single European Act. These Eurosceptics have explained to me that she was bullied into doing so by Lynda Chalker - but it was hardly a characteristic of her Prime Ministership that she was constantly being bullied into taking decisions she did not want to take. No.

The Single European Act (which set up the Single Market) remains a monument to her contribution to the EU. The Single Market still needs improvement but most observers would regard it as the Jewel in the Crown of Europe.

Being sceptical in the EU is Britain's job. It's what we do. The problem the Conservative Party faces is that some so-called Eurosceptics are in fact anti-Europeans.

John Major was another proper Eurosceptic in the best tradition. At Maastricht he not only stepped aside from the Euro and declined to sign up to the Social Chapter, but on a whole raft of other minor issues he was the awkward squad from start to finish. No doubt in the Quai d'Orsay he would have been described as “un vrai boulet”. The Spaniards - more blunt in these matters - would simply have said that he was a “coñazo”.


I well recall the final minutes at Maastricht. The Chairman, Prime Minister Lubbers, was summing up and bringing the meeting to a close. He said there was just one minor point which he felt could be taken on the nod. Oh dear! - The awkward squad put his hand up and, in a rather charming self-deprecating way, explained why the UK Government could not go along with this particular item. Lubbers hesitated for a moment - “Oh alright. Meeting closed”.

John Major then received a standing ovation from his colleagues. I remember well Chancellor Kohl crossing the room and shaking him warmly by the hand.

That's what I call constructive Euroscepticism. Out of the Euro. Out of the Social Chapter. Setting up the inter-governmental pillars. The principle of subsidiarity. Its called diplomacy. We are quite good at it.

I suspect David Cameron and William Hague are quite good at it too. But Parliament and the country need to give them a little room for manoeuvre. I was disappointed to see the Labour Party, which seems to oppose any cuts in public expenditure in the UK, rather recklessly jumping onto a bandwagon on the EU budget.

Similarly, what used to be called the serious press in the UK seem happy to slip-stream behind the often ill-informed propaganda of the anti-Europeans.

Surely it might be of some interest to the British public to know that the “massive bureaucracy” at the European Commission employs less people than the admirable Kent County Council? Surely, the “massive corruption” in the EU budget should be placed at the door of the Member States (where it actually takes place) and not the Commission. Twenty years ago at least the sums involved were substantially less than the total amount of fraud in the UK social security budget. I expect much the same applies to day.

Shut up

If proper British Euro-scepticism is to play a constructive part in the EU its time many of these flag waving myths were confronted. Its time for some Conservatives to simply shut up and place their trust in Cameron and Hague.

My support may well be a negative. After all, I am a Euro-fanatic “wet” appointed by John Major. In fact I was appointed by Margaret Thatcher. On appointment I had a conversation with her on Europe and found myself in total harmony. I remain profoundly grateful to her - as I had indicated my wish to step down from the Whips Office and retire (surely someone must have bullied her into appointing me?).

The truth is with that the EU is a bit of a nightmare (as are most international organisations). The trick is to play your hand with firmness, courtesy, guile and - yes - a bit of give-and-take.

I have no doubt Cameron and Hague are more than capable of doing that - provided their own supporters are not looking over their shoulder and trying to announce to the whole world what cards they hold in their hand.

An illustration of how much can be achieved if you play your hand right was given by Spain at Maasricht. We, along with our German friends introduced a text on Animal Welfare.

The Spanish managed to amend it in such a way as to ensure that the Bullfight is protected from any interference by the ECJ and the Animalist lobby in the rest of the EU. And if you can do that you can do almost anything.