Leading Article: The rebels and the real world

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The Independent Online
WILL HOSTILITIES in the long civil war with the Conservative Party over Europe end today - or will the Government - or merely the Prime Minister - be obliged to resign? Those are the giant questions left by last night's dramatic events in the House of Commons. John Major has done well to react decisively. To have put the Government in the position of having to table resolution after resolution mentioning the Social Chapter, and thus risking further defeats, would have been intolerably humiliating.

Today's resolution combining a vote of confidence and the Social Chapter will put the Tory rebels to the supreme test. If they vote with the Opposition to defeat the Government, they can have no doubt that they will be forcing either the Prime Minister's resignation, or a fresh election. They must have a good idea of the disastrous effect their conduct has already had upon public opinion in this country and abroad. The spectacle of them voting for a Social Chapter that they revile in order to prevent ratification of the Maastricht treaty can only undermine Parliament's reputation. They will surely not carry their cynicism to the point of bringing the Government down.

In reality, it is not so much Maastricht that they are voting against, but the modern world. In that real world, Britain's European partners regard the treaty as a flawed but necessary framework for consolidating and advancing European unity. The sovereignty that the rebels claimed to be defending continues to be eroded. In this real world, the money markets control the value of currencies; much of Britain's armed forces are assigned to Nato, and President Clinton can unilaterally impose a test ban that hits Britain's Trident programme; trade is increasingly a contest between giant blocs, with the EC facing up to the North American Free Trade Area and Japan and East Asia; and Eastern Europe, fringed by deadly conflicts, sees the true value of European union and desperately wants to be part of it. That desire could never be met through piecemeal, bilateral negotiations.

In the real Europe of 1993, Britain is genuinely exercising a role that maximises its potential weight in the world's affairs. John Major has played a valuable part in pushing for the EC's enlargement (to bring in the remaining three Scandinavian countries and Austria), and in negotiating improved access to EC markets for East European exports. His was an effectively persistent voice pressing for the relaunch of the Gatt negotiations. On policy towards Bosnia, it has generally been - for better or worse - Britain and France that called the shots, or lack of them.

The alternative to being at the heart of Europe is to be marginalised, and squeezed between a union of American states and European union. In the EC that is steadily evolving, many of Britain's doubts about the centralising tendencies of the European Commission are widely shared; and there is little likelihood that the 11 other member states will press for policies which will be good for them and bad for us.

Even if the Government survives today's vote, last night's events will have turned the knife in the wounds inflicted in the long civil war over Europe. Its authority, and the Prime Minister's, has been inescapably damaged. The public has been variously bored pallid and utterly confused. Our EC partners are no less puzzled. It is not just the Conservative Party that has been diminished, but the reputation of that same Parliament whose sovereignty the rebels claimed to be defending.