Leading Article: Behind that warning to the Danes

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SIGNS OF the Government's new confidence about Britain playing a constructive role 'at the heart of Europe' are multiplying. The first was the Prime Minister's speech last week pouring ridicule on his party's anti-Maastricht rebels and hymning the value of EC membership. The second was in weekend remarks by Tristan Garel- Jones, Foreign Office minister for Europe, about the Conservative Party's need to work out its agenda for Europe through to the year 2000, with Britain for the first time able to 'shape, rather than brake, Europe's development'.

The third was an unexpected contribution by Douglas Hurd to the campaign for the second Danish referendum on the Maastricht treaty. He said that if the Danes killed the treaty by again voting no, Britain would have to consider taking part in any negotiations for a new arrangement. At the time of the Edinburgh summit last December, by contrast, the Foreign Secretary said that it was not a political reality to suppose that if the Danes voted no again, Britain would 'sit down and negotiate a new treaty of wherever-it-is with 11 members without Denmark'.

What was not a political reality then has now, with the passage of the Maastricht treaty Bill through the Commons looking increasingly secure, become thinkable. Mr Hurd's remarks delighted the Danish government, whose campaign has emphasised the danger of its country's isolation. The Foreign Secretary was said by the treaty's Danish opponents to have shown that the British would put their own interests first. The subtler point picked up by the 'yes' lobby was that Mr Hurd had no doubt that those interests lay unequivocally in Europe - and that Britain could help to shape the EC's evolution to suit them.

Hence Mr Garel-Jones's attempt to direct attention to the next intergovernmental conference of member states in 1996. By then the Government will hope to have amply demonstrated its key contention: that the Maastricht treaty represents a shift more towards intergovernmental co-operation than towards a more 'federalist' Europe.

Government strategy is likely to focus on enlargement, making sure the single market works, encouraging intergovernmental co-operation and implementing the principle of subsidiarity. On most of these there has been a shift in Paris and Bonn towards the British viewpoint. With the Germans increasingly sceptical about monetary union, and a new centre-right government in Paris unreceptive to federalist concepts from Brussels, an era is in prospect in which the three strongest member states have much in common in their vision.

Each will be hoping for suport from the four new members - Sweden, Norway, Finland and Austria - due to be taken on board in 1995. What matters to the British is that they are all regarded as free traders, and will join this country, France and Germany as net contributors to the EC's budget. Less welcome, their entry will reduce the voting power of the big member states vis-a-vis the small ones. It is with such hazards that a coherent government strategy must concern itself.