Leading Article: Better days ahead for Britain in the EC

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WHEN John Major spoke to the Conservative Group for Europe yesterday, it was in the robust and confident tones of a prime minister at last emerging from the twin tunnels of the Maastricht treaty and the recession. The overwhelming message of his speech was that Britain's participation in the European Community is in the national interest; that close co-operation in Europe on problems which transcend frontiers is essential; and that an effective single market requires common laws and enforcement from the centre.

He even praised the European Commission for its battles against vested interests and on behalf of competition; and found the courage to deride those who oppose Britain's full participation in the EC - including, by implication, their spiritual leader, Baroness Thatcher - as victims of the 'despotism of nostalgia', and much else besides.

Yesterday's speech was one of a set of four over the next few days; that on Monday to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development will be more specifically addressed to the Government's hopes for the EC's evolution. Much has changed since the black days of last October, when the pound was forced out of the European exchange rate mechanism in a move that seemed seriously to undermine the prospects for economic and monetary union. That there has been a trend in this country's favour cannot be denied.

The backwash from the referendums in both Denmark and France made all member states more sympathetic to Mr Major's domestic political difficulties with the Maastricht treaty. They also provided welcome support for this country's hostility to excessive meddling and bureaucratic demands from Brussels. In Germany, there has been a mood swing against economic and monetary union; and in France a new centre-right coalition government is likely to be more favourable than its predecessor to the British taste for inter-governmental co- operation. The EC's acute difficulties in concerting policy towards the former Yugoslavia have further dampened the hopes of those who dream of a real European union.

Finally, the fact that Britain is emerging from its own long and deep recession even as the French, and especially the German, economies decline cannot but strengthen the Government's hand. There is a real chance for Mr Major to construct a European agenda that will maximise the improvement in Britain's standing and lay the foundations for Conservative policy through to the next inter-governmental conference in 1996.

Given the divisions within his own party, the combustibility of the Balkans and former Soviet Union, the economic and political difficulties of several major EC partners, and the challenges of enlargement, it will not be easy. In the short term, there is even the possibility that the second Danish referendum will prove negative. The encouraging aspect of last night's speech was that it showed Mr Major preparing for the task with renewed confidence, aware that Britain's proper place at the heart of Europe can be achieved only by constructive engagement.