Leading Article: The long quest for credibility

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JOHN MAJOR's speech in Leiden yesterday was timely. It followed an interview in which France's Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, talked of a Europe of concentric circles, and a provocative position paper from the governing Christian Democratic Union in Germany advocating a hard core within the European Union consisting of Germany, France and Benelux.

The idea of being relegated to second- or third-class status aroused as little enthusiasm in London as it did in Rome, Madrid and in smaller countries. Not surprisingly, the tone of Mr Major's speech was defensive. Even so, he was bold to attack so vigorously the 'caricature' of Britain's European policy that he had found to exist. If it is widely believed that Britain is 'interested only in a glorified free- trade area', the blame lies squarely with Margaret Thatcher, her successor and their party.

Yesterday's speech represented an attempt by the Prime Minister to extract himself from his corner. His central demand was for a future characterised by flexibility, which is in one sense precisely what Helmut Kohl and Mr Balludur propose. Where progress towards economic and monetary union is concerned, it is already, as he pointed out, a reality. But it is difficult for Britain's partners to accept Mr Major as their flexible friend when divisions within his party so often oblige him to be rigid.

It was reasonable for him to remind his audience of the global reach of Britain's trading and historical connections; and to point out how considerable a contribution this country has made to the defence and security of Europe in the post-war world. His call for more rapid progress in the field

of foreign and security policy co- operation will, furthermore, have struck a chord with those dismayed by European disarray over Bosnia, Rwanda and other crises.

Yet he showed no awareness that even in these fields, where he hopes Britain will be in the vanguard, sovereignty has to be pooled and cherished traditions sacrificed. The same contradiction dogged him during the Maastricht negotiations. He wanted Britain to be at the heart of Europe. Yet too often he found himself alone at the end of a limb. What is remembered on the Continent is not Britain's positive contributions, but its pioneering of the opt-out.

In the run-up to the 1996 sequel to the Maastricht conference, divisions of opinion over Europe in France and Germany may well rival those in Britain. It is healthy that this time the debate has started long before negotiations rather than being left - as happened with Maastricht - to referendums after the event.

Yet there is no mistaking the determination of the political classes in both France and Germany to pursue the European project, not least to maintain their guard against what the German paper called 'regressive nationalism' in and around Europe. Yesterday's speech is a welcome indication that Mr Major at least wishes to join the dialogue. But he has a long way to go before he will look to Paris and Bonn like a credible negotiating partner. If Britain cannot recover that credibility, there will be no sense in objecting if the community's founders forge ahead alone.