Leading Article: A slip of the tongue, and the choice is easier

Click to follow
The Independent Online
What a performance. Her Britannic Majesty's Principal Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs flies out. Before he has taken off he succeeds in demonstrating his party's terminal divisions on the subject of Europe. While there he gives a blue-ribbon demonstration of the coarseness and sheer lack of imagination in British official thought about Europe's foremost power. His tongue slips on the Today programme, causing Prime Minister and Chancellor hours of unwonted scampering and spinning. When he gets to Bonn he proceeds to lecture the Germans on, of all things, the beauties of nationalism. The mandarins of the Foreign Office, pillars of intellectual distinction, garnish his speech with a cliche of Immanuel Kant purloined from Isaiah Berlin and the only phrase sixth-form students of German ever learn from Martin Luther. Mr Rifkind, well briefed, manages to discuss the constitution of the federal republic without once ever mentioning that it is exactly that - federal. The fact that Germans think of European integration in terms of a concept of statehood which is historically and semantically quite different from the one current here escapes our man in Bonn.

But of course this was not really intended to be a speech addressed to the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung. It was a sorry attempt by a big man to raise his personal profile for the sake of party posturing in the post-election stakes. Every time Mr Rifkind does this, he becomes a smaller man. As the Rheinische Merkur observed before Mr Rifkind arrived, this speech was never intended to educate the Germans and the Swedes and the Danes. It was really an address to the British electorate. He would have saved the taxpayer a return air fare if he had simply got on the train for Lime Street and made his pitch to the electors of Wirral South.

Let us immediately scotch the idea that there is something improper about Malcolm Rifkind crossing the North Sea to harangue foreigners. The old protocols about what ministers should do abroad were always prissy. It actually serves the cause of Europe well for nation-state politicians to seek to build trans-national alliances, and to comment upon each other's affairs in public. For Mr Rifkind to drop a crude hint that he favours Wolfgang Schauble's position on European integration when Herr Schauble is being bruited as a replacement for Chancellor Kohl does no harm. We would welcome Klaus Kinkel coming to London to embarrass the Tories by pointing up the burgeoning gap between our Chancellor and Foreign Secretary - not a difficult thing to do, of which more anon.

But visitors, especially Secretary of State visitors, owe their hosts a duty of historical attentiveness. It was not just Mr Rifkind's complete failure to grasp the way the Germans live federalism that makes them so unworried by attaching powers to a European centre: the view of integration taken in Munich or Hamburg is heavily and properly skewed by the already- existing federal relationship between Lander and Bonn/Berlin. It was also his sheer lack of geo-political imagination. He says to the Germans: no, you cannot have European integration as presently conceived, that is bad for your national health. But there is nothing else for you either, save a utopian vision in which selling Mercedes-Benz cars becomes a recipe for universal peace and brotherhood. British politicians really must learn that if they are going to engage the attention of Germans they have to address their deep need to build their country in to Europe, to a network of alliances, to a destiny. If they are to argue convincingly that Chancellor Kohl's project for Franco-German rapprochement (a.k.a. European Monetary Union) is to be rejected or deferred ad interim, there has at least to be the beginnings of a suggestion for what replaces it. The German political class is, it must be said, confused and uncertain about whether there is such an alternative. Constructive thought from a British politician - mirabile dictu! - would be welcome.

But of course it is daft to expect originality from a Conservative politician at this point in the party's history or this stage in the electoral cycle. Votes and position are all; the long-run interests of the country be hanged. According to John Major we have no need of exegesis on the Government's position on a single currency; wait-and-see ambiguous, but straightforwardly ambiguous. However, Mr Rifkind yesterday set out to see how much clear blue water he could put between himself and Labour. Instead, no sooner had light streamed through the windows of Broadcasting House than he had set off an explosive device. We are, he said, hostile to single money.

Welcome the bang. It clears the air. Labour, per Robin Cook, has committed to a position which can be summarised as "empirical judgement on a nearer AD 2002". Malcolm Rifkind in effect says "never". If John Major were Jimmy Carter he would doubtless admit that he lusted after the Rifkind/Redwood position in his heart. So where on earth, let alone clear blue water, does that leave Kenneth Clarke? Waving and drowning? Behaving as you might imagine someone to behave who is witnessing his party slip further and further away from him but has not yet mustered the courage to articulate the difference?

The trip to Bonn was not therefore wasted, however little good it did the Germans. The nature of the European choice before the British people this spring became clearer. Labour, in its present buttoned-up mode, makes few slips of the tongue - witness the blandness of Gordon Brown's presentation in New York yesterday. Without slips of the tongue, its European position is friendly. The Tory stand, as Mr Rifkind revealed, is antipathetic. The choice becomes that much easier.