Lamont's lonely road leads nowhere: The former Chancellor's attack on European integration is outdated and against Britain's interests, says Tony Barber

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The Independent Online
NORMAN LAMONT, in his controversial speech on Tuesday, set out the case that Britain has nothing to gain from a closer relationship with continental Europe and, indeed, may have to consider leaving the EU altogether. He made six main points, each of which deserves attention.

Point one was that 'we seem to have joined a club very different from that which we had in mind in the early Seventies. Then, almost all the emphasis was on economics'. Yes, the EU is different now. The momentum towards political integration is much stronger. The European Parliament, first directly elected in 1979, has increased its legislative powers. There is an effort, not always successful, to run a common foreign policy.

However, to describe the 'club' of the early Seventies as an organisation that was almost exclusively economic in purpose is to ignore the forces that impelled France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg to sign the Treaty of Rome in 1957. There was always a political dimension to the European Economic Community, as it then was, because the founder members wished to form a relationship sufficiently close to render future wars among them inconceivable.

An 'ever closer union' in Europe was also seen as the best way to solve 'the German problem' - that is, the regulation of relations between Europe's biggest power and its neighbours. This question has acquired even greater urgency since German unification in 1990, the Soviet Union's collapse and the emergence of newly independent but relatively weak countries on Germany's eastern frontiers.

It is a matter of cardinal significance that Germany's present political classes are anxious to bind their country into a more closely integrated Europe. They do not want Germany to be a 'loose cannon' in Europe ever again. The offer is there for other Europeans to take up and, though one can hope, one cannot be sure it will remain in place for ever.

In short, Europe has changed in dramatic ways since Britain joined the EEC in 1973. Mr Lamont and other British politicians may have thought it would remain predominantly economic in nature, but the continent's transformation since 1989 demands new approaches and active British engagement.

Mr Lamont's second point was that 'there is not a shred of evidence at Maastricht or since then that anyone accepts our view of Europe'. This remark assumed there is a single British view of Europe, when plainly there is a great variety of views ranging from enthusiasm for more integration to the need for internal EU reform to Lamont-like rejectionism. Many of these views in fact overlap with those of Britain's 11 EU partners.

Mr Lamont portrayed the EU as a place where it is always 'them against us', Eleven against One. This distorts the facts. The EU is a forum for permanent negotiation and compromise. When disagreements arise, Britain is not the only country to find itself alone. Greece has been isolated over its policy towards the former Yugoslav Macedonia, and France fought a lonely battle on agricultural aspects of the Gatt world trade treaty.

Of course, Britain is perceived as the most Euro- sceptical EU member. But in Paris and Bonn that causes dismay, not celebration. In the interests of wider European stability and the political balance of the EU, France and Germany would much rather include Britain in the process of integration.

Point three was that 'the 11 other members want a European Union that is a European state, whether they express it in these precise terms or not'. This sentence conjured up the spectre of a centralised supra-national entity governed by unelected bureaucrats in Brussels.

Centralisation is the opposite of what pro-Europeans have in mind. Rather, the idea is to let power be exercised at the most appropriate level, be it local, regional, national or international. This does mean a certain pooling of sovereignty by EU states but it does not mean the elimination of flags, anthems, monarchs, national football teams or morris dancing.

Moreover, the EU's anticipated expansion to take in Austria, Finland, Norway, Sweden and certain former Communist countries in central and eastern Europe will make it even less appropriate to have a highly centralised union. One can argue that there is a need to improve the democratic content of the EU, by making the Commission more accountable and by raising still higher the parliament's profile. But this is what the EU is working on ahead of the 1996 conference of member governments.

Point four was that 'Britain is not at the heart of Europe; it is on Europe's western edge'. Ireland, France, Spain and Portugal are also on Europe's western edge, but do not share Mr Lamont's hankering for isolation. The remarkable feature of European development since 1957 has been the fact that so many countries have seen the EU as the most effective guarantor of the continent's prosperity and stability. Are they all wrong?

Mr Lamont also had nothing to say about the way that modern transport and communications systems have rendered Britain's physical separation from the continent virtually irrelevant.

In his fifth point, Mr Lamont found himself unable to 'pinpoint a single concrete economic advantage that unambiguously comes to this country' from EU membership. This assertion sits uneasily with remarks later in his speech making clear his support for European free trade - surely one of the EU's biggest achievements. If one looks at the weak points of the British economy, such as high unemployment, boom-and-bust business cycles and an insufficiently educated and trained workforce, one can legitimately ask if these problems have been caused by the EU or by policies pursued by British governments themselves.

Point six was that 'it is nonsense to suggest that Britain cannot be viable on its own'. Perhaps - but what sort of Britain would it be? One can hardly imagine Britain outside the EU retaining its permanent United Nations Security Council seat. Its diplomatic, economic, military, cultural and moral influence around the world would be downgraded. The United States would have much less concern for a Britain separated from the EU.

Full and constructive British involvement in the EU is in the interests of Britain and Europe as a whole. The fall of Communism and instability in the East make the further development of the EU the best way to prevent the return of an unstable European power system. Now, more than ever, this is not the time for Britain to withdraw into its shell.