Leading Article: Letting in the real world

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The Independent Online
ALL debates about Maastricht are unsatisfactory because the treaty itself pulls in two different directions. The part devoted to progress towards economic and monetary union (EMU) can be described as a stride towards a federal Europe - though one which, in Britain's special case, requires parliamentary approval to enter its single-currency phase. The parts that extend intergovernmental co-operation in such spheres as foreign and security policy, and over drugs, crime and the like, can be seen as a significant shift away from the centralising influence of the European Community's institutions.

Few people in British political life today openly favour a United States of Europe. But those most hostile to federalism point to the EMU provisions and paint the treaty as, in Lord Tebbit's phrase, a time-bomb, placed under Britain's sovereignty. Those who favour closer co-operation with our EC partners claim Maastricht as a victory for the British vision of a European community in which interference from Brussels will be reduced to the minimum necessary to police the single market. They point to the subsidiarity principle, incorporated into the treaty and already being acted upon.

So it was in yesterday's passionate debate in Brighton. Despite Sir Norman Fowler's plea for unity and Douglas Hurd's warning that Europe could break the party, the cleft yawned wide and publicly. Each side used the treaty to support its own wildly divergent views of what Britain's relationships should be with the other 11 member states. Each side cited Britain's national interests. Those hostile to the treaty knew better than the Government where those interests lay, better even than the Prime Minister, who did so much in April to bring the party back to power against the odds. In fact, they produced no arguments that appeared to relate to the real world of hard trade negotiations, or the need of businessmen for a largely stable currency - in which Britain's relative weight, alone, is slight. Only in a couple of speeches defending ratification of the treaty - and, naturally, in the Foreign Secretary's response - did that world obtrude.

Mr Hurd said he would give it to the party hard and straight; and so, by his normally laid-back standards, he did - though not before pointing out diplomatically that there was more common ground between the two sides of the debate than people supposed. With eloquence and something approaching passion, he praised all those aspects of the treaty that did indeed represent a victory for Britain's negotiators and the British view of the EC's evolution. Tellingly, he asked how a prime minister who had signed a treaty acclaimed at home as such a success could explain to his co-signatories that his government was now going to tear it up.

Inevitably, such a vision raised cheers from those who had hailed Lord Tebbit's menacing echoes of Brutus. But they seemed to be living in a world compounded of nostalgia for the days when Britain could go it alone, and ignorance of the larger world outside Westminster, local government and party associations. Mr Hurd could profitably have laid greater emphasis on their lack of alternatives, and on the dangers of resurgent nationalism and power politics. That task now passes to John Major. He must fulfil it ruthlessly and with passion.