Leading Article: Threadbare over Europe

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EXCITING things were happening in Brussels yesterday. Austria, Finland and Sweden having agreed membership terms last week, the pressure from foreign ministers of the European Union was on Norway to overcome its remaining objections. As those difficult negotiations continued, Poland's foreign minister joined Hungary's in announcing that his government would shortly be applying for membership of the EU.

Set beside these stirring events, Douglas Hurd's speech in the Belgian capital was that of a European minimalist. True, the Foreign Secretary made plenty of valid points. The EU must be careful not to over-legislate and must keep the principle of subsidiarity in the foreground: pretty rich advice from a Government that is not only

strong on legislation but happy to usurp the role of local government. There was much emphasis on strict financial controls and the prevention of fraud; and, finally, a not-so- ringing conclusion that true European vision in 1994 lies in having a truce on rhetoric, making a success of what has already been agreed, and extending that success to other parts of Europe.

The explanation for Mr Hurd's approach is simple. He was engaged in the impossible task of sustaining Britain's place 'at the heart of Europe' while placating the right wing of the Conservative Party, a circle that cannot be squared. What he said was intended to sound constructive, yet at the same time sternly critical. Above all, it was an implicit attack on those who maintain that the EU must be constantly adapting its role and its institutions as the world changes around it.

Coming as it did at a moment when future change was the topic of the hour, his argument seemed politically wrong in tone as well as intellectually threadbare. When the union is facing enlargement to 15 or 16 members, and coming to terms with the importance of admitting East European applicants earlier than previously envisaged, there is little logic in suggesting that consolidation and good management are the top priority.

If Mr Hurd's speech, coupled with Michael Heseltine's recent attack on 'Euro-sclerosis', provide an accurate sample of the Conservative platform for elections to the European Parliament in June, the omens for Tory candidates are not good. Once again the party will be seen to be cool towards the EU's institutional framework. The result is likely to be not just lost seats but - to Continental eyes at least - a further distancing of the Government itself from the whole European enterprise.

That kind of marginalisation weakens Britain's voice within the EU, and so diminishes this country's perceived weight in the eyes of the world - and especially in the United States and Japan. If John Major genuinely wishes Britain to achieve its full diplomatic potential within the councils of Europe, he must decide which is more important: Britain's clout in the world, or appeasing the Europhobe wing of his party.