Douglas Hurd: Don't stir up ancient disputes

As leader of the party, Mr Howard drained most of the poison out of the old arguments

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David Cameron does not have to bother himself with the ancient disputes about Europe that have done the party such harm. Neither candidate for the Conservative leadership said much about the European Union in the campaign. There was no need. As leader of the party, Michael Howard drained most of the poison out of the old arguments. Indeed many of those arguments have simply gone away.

Reflecting on prophesies of doom at the time of Maastricht, I observe that the Queen is still happy on her throne, British taxes are put up by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, British interest rates are set by the Bank of England, and Britain goes to war at the behest of the Americans. None of these rights is at risk. There is no serious pressure on Britain to join the euro.

The Constitutional Treaty is dead. There will never be another mammoth treaty of its kind. The President of the European Commission, far from piling up the legislative burden is trying to reduce it. The essential power in the EU rests, as it has always rested, with the Council of Ministers, each responsible to a national parliament, who share its law-making powers with the directly elected European Parliament.

So David Cameron can concentrate on the future. Some European policies fit easily into Conservative thinking. Liberalisation of the single market is still not complete. Enlargement, so successful in transforming Eastern Europe, still has to be extended to the Balkans and Turkey. Both these enterprises were given crucial support by Margaret Thatcher; both have Conservative roots.

Whether the European budget is settled by the British next week or by the Austrians in the spring there is no doubt about the way in which EU economic policy is moving (though far too slowly) - towards the opening of markets within and outside Europe with a continuing run-down of the Common Agricultural Policy. Sugar is the most recent example. These are arguments on which French protectionists will battle mightily and lose.

David Cameron has said he will separate the Conservative MEPs from the European Peoples Party. But we can benefit from close ties with like-minded politicians in Europe, in particularly the admirable new German Chancellor, Angela Merkel.

Conservatives favour a robust foreign policy. In many areas this will be achieved by working in partnership with other Europeans. In Russia as elsewhere we compete with our partners for business; but politically we need a cool, united European policy towards the cool customer in the Kremlin. This means paying more attention to the views of our partners in Poland and the Baltic states.

We need to focus on the arc of danger which stretches from China, south to Afghanistan and the Middle East, and then west up through the Balkans to Ukraine and Belarus. The United States, Russia and China are big players in this area. The European nations should decide whether they wish to influence what happens by working together or whether they are content with mere chatter.

There is no compulsion in this process. European foreign policy can only take shape on subjects where the European governments are unanimous. Majority voting is confined to implementing policies which have been unanimously agreed.

Nor should the result be antagonism towards the US. The notion of the EU as a superpower in rivalry to the Americans has quietly expired, except perhaps at election time in France. Europeans were divided on Iraq. The British government blundered into a wrong and foolish war, the effects of which still haunt us. But that was in President Bush's first term. In the second term, the rhetoric is the same but the content is different. Partnership is back in vogue.

The US is now relying on European diplomacy and soft power to avert the emergence of Iran as a military nuclear power. This British, French and German foreign ministers, acting on behalf of Europe as a whole, are working closely with Washington in partnership. When it can be achieved, this is by far the best pattern for the future.

All this amounts to positive scepticism. The word scepticism was kidnapped and twisted out of its real meaning by those whose analysis of the EU is fundamentally negative. But in its true sense, scepticism is a useful tool. Conservatives should be well to the fore in criticising the institutions of Europe when they fall into over-regulation, protectionism and empty rhetoric. But our criticism should and, I believe, will be based, on a clear understanding of the positive part a modern Conservative Party can play in modern Europe.

Douglas Hurd was Foreign Secretary from 1989-1995

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