Forward with Europe, or back?: After last week's watershed, Godfrey Hodgson distils opinions on what has gone wrong and where Britain should be going now

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THEY disagree about many things. Some think the Maastricht treaty is dead; others that life could yet be breathed into it. But a random sample of a dozen British experts on Europe this week suggests a surprising measure of unanimity none the less, considering that some are Conservatives, some support Labour, some are academics, others practising politicians and others again businessmen and bankers.

There is agreement, for a start, that in signing the Maastricht treaty politicians, both in Britain and elsewhere, pushed ahead too far, too fast for a large proportion of their constituencies. 'They have gone too far,' says David Howell, chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee. 'Europe has lost the Europeans,' says Sir Ralf Dahrendorf, a former European Commissioner and German politician turned British academic. 'What is new,' says Professor Adam Roberts, of Balliol College, Oxford, 'is that it is no longer only the British who have doubts about Europe.'

A week is a long time in politics, and it is more than a week now since the hurricane of selling hit sterling, blowing Britain out of the exchange rate mechanism and John Major's government off course. Already the politicians and the journalists, the central bankers and the foreign exchange dealers, have new realities to confront: the debate in the Commons, the speculation against the French franc, the coming European summit.

Yet it is surely important not to allow the flux of events to sweep away the fact that an event of enormous significance took place last week. Whatever happens in Britain's domestic politics, Europe has just passed through an abrupt, decisive change that will be looked back on as a turning point.

Those actually engaged in keeping the Government and the British economy on the road are not in a mood to reflect on this historical dimension. So I took the opportunity to talk to a dozen men and women who have been thinking hard about Europe for years, and asked them what they saw as the historical significance of what happened.

Several were unwilling to be identified, but still spoke freely. 'The ERM was half-baked from the start,' said one economist. 'You either went forward to a single currency or you retreated to the market setting the rates. The Government was fundamentally split. Some wanted the ERM as a half-

way stage to a single currency, some just hoped it would help keep down inflation. Now both of our parties are fundamentally split.'

An eminent banker, who also felt he could not be named, ticked off the damage the storm in the currency markets had done - to the Government, to Britain's international credibility, to Britain's reputation. 'It advertised us as third-

class Europeans,' he said. But he also pointed out wryly that, if the Prime Minister had wanted to devalue, which he didn't, he could not have picked a better time, with spare capacity in industry and shell-

shocked consumers minimising the risks of inflation.

Here, in a sort of vox pop of the chattering classes, are other reflections on the damage the hurricane did before the eye of the storm moved on. If one group seems under-represented - those who want Britain to have as little to do with Europe as possible and who are, after all, well represented in Parliament - that may be because the great majority of those whose business it is to think about Britain's international position see no long- term alternative to close involvement in Europe. In a single phrase, what these experts seem to agree on is, 'Maastricht no, Europe yes.'

David Howell, MP

Chairman of the House of Commons foreign affairs committee: 'We think in London that Maastricht is dead. But it is clear that in the ethereal world they inhabit in the Elysee and in Bonn they don't see it that way. They have gone too far. The monetary explosion has made that plain. It was always seen as a treaty too far. So now there are two ways of thinking about it. There is the good old Poujadist feeling: it's lovely floating free. That is all very well. You can tell your bank manager you're floating free, but by the time you get to the end of the street you know you'll need him again. The theme that has really interested me for the last two years is the idea that the design concepts of European progress and momentum are getting very dated. There were some basic ideas. One was the internal market. Another was keeping the French and the Germans from killing one another. And the third Big Idea was to keep Europe out of the Communist maw. Well, there isn't a Communist maw any longer. With the technological revolution, the video revolution, the personal computer, you have a splintering, a centrifugal force. People all over Europe are reacting against the idea that 'we must centralise to be strong'. You don't need to centralise any more - indeed, to be strong you need to be flexible. Then along came the lawyers with the idea of 'subsidiarity'. You must stop the slippery slope notion, the idea that Europe must come together in one huge mess and disappear down a hole in the middle of the floor. Now people accept that Europe must reach a settlement between the Commission in the centre and the member states and regions. Will the Tory party split on Europe? That is up to the two old men, the old man in Paris and the old man in Bonn. If they just keep ploughing ahead, then the Tory party will split.'

Professor Adam Roberts

Balliol College, Oxford: 'What strikes me is how in spite of everything that has happened the fallback position is still Europe. We have got used to a high level of involvement in Europe. The fallback position is no longer Little England; even Little Englanders now accept that we have to be part of Europe. Having said that, I strongly suspect that a lot of the political crisis over Maastricht has arisen from an excessive push for unity in too short a period. It is partly the European Community's fault for being such a boring institution, concerned with things like agriculture rather than with things that catch the imagination like human rights. There is a fundamental issue about language, too. We only feel we can control our politicians when we can understand what they are saying. I suspect that there will in the end be a common language for the elites of Europe, as there was in the 18th century - it might be English, but that won't be easy for the French and the Germans. What is new is that it is no longer only the British who have doubts about Europe. That puts us all in the same boat.'

Sir Ralf Dahrendorf

Warden of St Antony's College, Oxford: 'I have been predicting disaster, but I'm not at all pleased to be proved right. It is said that if Europe does not move forward, it will go back, but beware] For too long we have said: 'This may be silly, but we have to do it in the name of European unity.' It is the hypocrisy of doing the wrong thing in the name of doing the right thing. Maastricht was like that. Suddenly 'Europe' has lost the Europeans. We need more leadership from the politicians. We need an honest Europe.'

Heather Weeks

Former council member, Conservative Group for Europe: 'Having been a keen European all my life, I was very unhappy about the Maastricht treaty. I'm not averse to a federal Europe in the future, but it has to be an evolutionary process. It looked as if people were trying to forget the fact that there has been change in the world. I feel very strongly that we should be doing more to help the newly democratic countries in Eastern Europe. Pushing ahead with the Europe of the Twelve is seen by them only as a way of excluding them. It would have been more sensible to see how the single market worked first.'

Sir Julian Bullard

Former British ambassador in Bonn: 'We have made a mistake in identifying the way ahead with Maastricht. There are plenty of other things that need to be done: enlargement of the Community to bring in countries like Sweden and Austria as well as the eastern countries; agriculture, the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy; creating a single market; resolving the difference between Europe and the rest of the world, particularly America, over trade. But we don't have to throw away the valuable things we have been able to do. The prosperity of Western Europe is not nothing. I wouldn't say Maastricht is totally dead. But it is rather worrying to see how the rise of anti-European feeling has broken out again in this country - and not only in the Conservative Party.'

Beverley Anderson

Educationist, broadcaster and Labour supporter: 'My feeling is one of dismay because the Government is not confronting the realities. The Germans and the markets have reminded us of the weakness of our own economy. The Government is behaving as if this was something that had just happened to us, as if we were passive victims. What is scary is that the only people who seem to know what they want are the Conservative Eurosceptics. It is a very dangerous, sad episode. And it serves Labour right. Bryan Gould has at least said: 'You must have a policy.' We are voting to become a banana republic.'

Sir Reginald Hibbert

Former British ambassador in Paris and diplomat in Bonn: 'The key to understanding what has happened is that everyone underestimates how much French policy has focused on the problem of Germany for the last 40 years. Both France and Britain have been utterly disoriented by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the unification of Germany. Everything that was agreed at Maastricht would make perfect sense if Germany were still divided. But Maastricht was only a stage in a process. Now the Maastricht treaty is stranded. The tides have ebbed. France and Germany got together and imposed a timetable that is impracticable. German unification has changed everything. Now there must be a longer timetable. The Prime Minister should go to the French President and the German Chancellor and say that we must develop a new kind of European co-operation in defence and on the strategic side. Britain has been too obsessed with Nato. We should say that we will leave keeping peace in the world to Nato, but that Europe will keep the peace in Europe. If we don't do that, and fail to tackle the problem of the former Yugoslavia and the former Soviet Union, I think what has happened could be a turning point of the worst sort, a turning backwards. In any case, now we must go more slowly.'

(Photograph omitted)