Leading Article: Shrewd tactics but dim vision

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The Independent Online
THE EUROPEAN election campaign has been more interesting than expected. It has even been to a considerable extent about Britain's relationship with the European Union. That was partly because the Conservatives wanted to divert attention from their domestic record; partly because they reckoned their ideas on Europe were more in tune with the electorate's than the Opposition's; and partly because they needed to forge policies that bridged divisions over Europe within the party.

All in all, they handled a weak position with some short-term adroitness. The tone of the Tory campaign was hostile to closer European union from the start, with John Major emphasising the so- called threat posed by Labour and Liberal Democrat policies to Britain's veto and national identity. By drumming away at the allegedly federalist attitudes of their opponents, they often put them on the defensive.

The Opposition's enthusiasm for the Social Chapter was also emphasised. Beside all that, Mr Major's embrace of the concept of a multi- speed Europe looked quite positive. This a la carte approach to Europe provides a credible concept that could hold together all save those at the extremes. Its major flaws are - as the Opposition swiftly pointed out - that it threatens to consign Britain to the slow lane; and that it will probably anger Britain's EU partners.

Into all this obtruded Mr Major's cynical remarks about beggars. They may help to promote a key aim of the Tory campaign: to get hard-core Tory voters to the polling stations today. But they are likely to do the Prime Minister's reputation serious medium-term damage. Who can now say convincingly that for all his faults he is a decent, kindly human being?

Labour, too, had a goodish campaign. Its clear goal, honestly acknowledged, was to portray the elections as a referendum on the Major government. The Government's recent tax increases proved the most telling theme. The Liberal Democrats were often on the defensive about their federalist record and had some difficulty, during a not very effective campaign, in differentiating their policies from Labour's.

For all the tactical shrewdness and successful damage limitation of their campaign, the Conservatives' campaign has won the party little honour. Their vision of Europe is small-minded and inordinately defensive. It assumes that Britain will not want to be up there with Germany and France in the vanguard of European integration. It fails to recognise that a single market plus inter-governmental co-operation in a few other fields will not be enough to keep an enlarged union together. It suggests that Britain's national identity is more vulnerable than those of our partners.

Above all, it lacks the courage to proclaim that Britain wields far more influence in the world and power over its own fate if it is playing a full part in Europe, rather than standing on the sidelines.