In Europe's slow lane, overtaken by events

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The Independent Online
THE sensation is unmistakable. The spinning head, the queasy feeling in the stomach, the fluttering heart: sitting in the Conservative press conference on Europe yesterday I had this awful feeling that . . . John Major is right. A multi-speed Europe may well be the outcome of the next phase of European politics; and it is a conservative idea in line with the views of the people.

The British ones, anyway. A poll of voters in the 12 European Union countries, published by the Financial Times yesterday, confirmed that the British are still among the strongest opponents of further integration. Asked to choose between 'a more integrated Europe as envisaged under Maastricht or a looser arrangement between nation states', only 31 per cent of British respondents went for the post-Maastricht Europe. Germans were almost as hostile.

This has been the story of the Union since the Maastricht referendums. It is a nice question whether the withdrawal of popular assent by large majorities was caused by the coincidence of economic recession, or by the over- complicated political superstructure being raised above their heads, or by the feebleness of politians in selling their vision.

But it has happened. That assent is no longer there in enough countries, or indeed clearly enough across the Union as a whole for a federation of the 12 to emerge in the near future. Even if Germany did join France and Benelux in forging a single currency and a tighter political union, it is difficult to imagine a Conservative-led Britain, never mind Italy or Denmark, joining in. Multi- speed Europe has arrived.

In practical terms, this means that Britain will have nothing to do with a single currency, or with rejoining the exchange rate mechanism; that it will oppose any extension of majority voting; and that it will fight any attempts to give more powers to the European Parliament. Against lots of things; for few. But those are the realities of current Tory politics. As one senior minister ruefully puts it: 'We are really very European: we are a coalition government.'

Things might have been different had Mr Major adopted a more robust approach to his Euro-sceptic critics. But he never deviated from expressions of frustrated anger in private, combined with measured appeasement in public, nor will he now. The big question left is how much his current policy will damage Britain's interests.

To elucidate that, we must start with the dreadful nonsense talked

at Conservative press conferences whenever the issue of the British veto is raised. Sir Norman Fowler yesterday put on his growliest voice (not very) to promise that this would be retained wherever Britain's 'vital national interests' were concerned. Oh yes? But there is no veto when it comes to agriculture, the single market, transport, customs and tariffs, competition policy and training. If these are not 'vital national interests', I don't know what is.

Margaret Thatcher, then John Major, championed some of the most invasive developments in the above areas because they extended the free market. To pretend there is some safe line between vital interests, protected by the veto, and lesser interests, which are not so protected, is nonsense. Governments are in favour of majority voting when it suits them - just as we would like to get rid of French state subsidies for industry - and not, when they don't.

To suggest otherwise is to confuse a pragmatic political judgement with a national absolute. It is irresponsible. But the happy situation for the Tory party is that, by and large, the veto is securely there to protect those vital aspects of economic policy which Britain is in Europe for; and isn't yet available for the political agenda which the Tories mostly oppose.

Given the hostility of so many voters to the whole project of union, it may seem sensible to block and slow down progress for the moment, reasonably secure in the knowledge that a few more years of intransigence is unlikely seriously to damage British economic interests. Deals may not be on offer that otherwise would have been, opportunities may be lost. But the roof won't fall in.

That seems to be the strategy Mr Major is now pursuing, and the logic behind his claim to remain a good European. And yes, in the current circumstances, this multi- speed Europe has real attractions.

But the trouble is that one can only be a good European by pre

tending to be a bad European for so long. There are times for applying the brake, urging caution, reminding everyone of national interests. But the Union is a dynamic, requiring leadership, and politicians who endlessly play the nationalist card can, and will, destroy it. Put on the black stetson, even for effect, and eventually you really do become the bad guy.

Although it is sold as a new vision of the future, the multi-speed Europe is just as likely to become another holding position. The threat of a new core Union, with a single currency, remains serious. We would certainly be outside it, yet there would be serious economic dangers in being so. Eventually, others would end up making the rules under which we traded. The historic mistake of the past 30 years would be repeated.

All that is for the future. But how would one describe a drifting policy that slowly took us towards such a disaster? Would one call it, perhaps, 'the most craven foreign policy I have ever heard coming from a British political party . . . they have forfeited any conceivable right ever to be trusted in government with British foreign policy in the future'. No, I don't think so. As the Prime Minister pointed out yesterday, we want a serious debate, not silly point-scoring.