Leading Article: Some truths that Lamont ignored

NORMAN LAMONT made an important speech at the Tory party conference in Bournemouth last night. Never before have the arguments against being 'at the heart of Europe' been so coherently marshalled by a former senior minister with first-hand experience of negotiating within the European Union. Rarely have possible alternatives to membership been so provocatively examined.

Yet the structure erected by the former Chancellor of the Exchequer stands on sandy soil. One of its cornerstones was his erroneous claim: 'There is no argument in Europe. There is Britain's point of view, and then there is the rest of Europe.' As Douglas Hurd pointed out in his earlier robust call for partnership and co-operation, the future of the EU is a matter of intense debate in most other member states, notably Germany, France and Denmark. Furthermore, Mr Lamont ignored the likely accession of four new members in January, in each of which there has been a passionate division over Europe.

Mr Lamont also cheated by depicting the ideas on Europe recently put forward by Chancellor Kohl's Christian Democratic party as government policy. He knows that any government paper would be far more closely tailored to the realities of public opinion not just in Germany but in other member states. It was, moreover, a falsification of British history to state so flatly that 'Britain is not at the heart of Europe. It is on Europe's western edge'. That may be geographically accurate, but it scarcely chimes with this country's deep involvement in Europe, and vice versa, from the Roman conquest onwards.

In advocating abandonment of the present course, Mr Lamont makes the defeatist assumption that the Major government cannot hope to win the argument when negotiating with Britain's EU partners. Yet he did a service by taking the Eurosceptic case to its logical conclusion and putting forward various alternatives to full membership, even flirting with the idea of withdrawal.

The alternatives he outlined more clearly were: standing firm on existing arrangements, membership of a purely free-trade area, possibly embracing the North American Free Trade Agreement, and negotiating an outer-tier status.

Any of these options would, in reality, take Britain on a collision course with its own self-interest. It is true to say, with Mr Hurd, that much of Britain's weight in the world derives from the potential of its frequently mishandled partnership with other European states. It is false to claim, as Mr Lamont does, that EU membership has been neutral or negative in Britain's economic performance: we need only observe the transformation in the country's trade flows in the past decade. Perhaps Mr Lamont's party is about to be seduced by a vision that has thus far not dared to speak its name. Mr Major now has no choice but to stand alongside Mr Hurd on Friday and fight for a genuinely constructive engagement with Europe.