Major and the two-headed beast

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EXCELLENT politics, Prime Minister: shame about the strategy. Having reminded the country of the British veto, John Major picked the perfect occasion to use it. From his reception in

the Commons, you would have thought he had ordered Navy gunboats into action against some hated despot rather than blocked a Belgian's bureaucratic ambitions in a stuffy hotel. There was a perception among Tory MPs that the Corfu confrontation was, somehow, a decisive moment. The trouble is, they may be right.

At the core of Britain's hostility to the Dehaene candidacy was not the man but his delivery system, the private and powerful Franco- German machine. It was the 'stitch-up' during the Mulhouse summit between President Mitterrand and Chancellor Kohl earlier this month that really irked Mr Major. When he complained yesterday that the procedures before the Corfu summit were not satisfactory, he was referring to what Sir Teddy Taylor called 'the blitzkrieg of the French and Germans'.

There is a history to this that makes it rather more than one-off disgruntlement about inadequate consultation. For London in recent years, the problem with the European Union has not been supranationality but nationality - the parallel national agendas of France and Germany. Throughout the post-war period the relationship between Paris and Bonn has determined the timing and nature of the project of European union.

Their bureaucracies, central bankers and political elites have become ever more closely interlinked. Jacques Delors derived his job and his power from his understanding of the need to work closely with Helmut Kohl. Monetary union will depend on Franco- Germania. So too will the nature of a new European defence structure. Since the Mulhouse summit, there have been complaints from different Whitehall departments about Franco-German positions, well thought-out and co-ordinated, being thumped down on the others' desks.

Nothing new there: for years, British European policy has been aimed at trying to break into this axis (being 'at the heart of Europe') or, failing that, to neutralise it. The nightmare remains a stronger core controlled by Franco-Germania, from which Britain is excluded and which controls trade and European policy along lines inimical to our national interests.

Corfu may have merely strengthened the axis. Mr Major spoke optimistically of the need for 'urgent bilateral contacts' to find a commonly agreed new Commission president, but it is hard to imagine the first calls being made to London. The Foreign Office takes comfort that the German presidency of the EU now makes it necessary for Mr Kohl to deal rather than to sulk. But in the longer term, there is a more serious problem about the direction of British policy.

For up to now, these national rivalries, including the issue of the Franco-German axis, have been held within the EU institutions. The Union appears as the virtual reality battlefield across which old balance-of-power rivalries are enacted. We tilt to the Italians, the Belgians cosy up to the Germans, et cetera. Everyone talks about the EU as 'supranational', yet when you hear the nations talk about their deal-making, it can sound more reminiscent of the diplomatic and political tribalism of earlier generations.

But in the Thatcherite alternative to federalism, which is a web of inter-governmental deals, the window dressing of 'Europe' and its institutions would be stripped away. The shifting alliances between individual nations, including the power of Franco-Germania, would be more blatant, unmediated by commissioners and institutions. That is the logic of the European strategy Margaret Thatcher and now John Major have pursued. Are we sure that a return to naked balance-of-power diplomacy would be an unequivocal sign of European progress? After all, the dream of European political union, being happily buried by the British Conservatives yesterday, had down-to-earth origins.

As party leader and thus as Prime Minister, Mr Major has been greatly strengthened by the last few days. Even ardent Tory Europhiles held no brief for Jean-Luc Dehaene and had no appetite for attacking the Prime Minister. The crassness of the French and German bullying has drawn the sting of the criticism he might otherwise have faced for using his veto. The prospect of a Tory armistice on Europe no longer looks absurd.

In the world of low politics, this is quite a triumph. Yet under the cheers and the genuine expressions of hope that Mr Major has finally hit a run of luck, thinking Conservatives ought to be worried. Their leader has steadily been remaking himself as a Eurosceptic, blunderingly over the qualified majority voting issue, rhetorically during the European election campaign and now confidently against the Franco-German candidate.

Nor is he necessarily wrong, in personal terms. His party is a jungle and the anti-Brussels nationalists have proved to be the most ruthless beasts therein. The Europhiles have slithered about in the undergrowth, wringing their paws and muttering dark warnings in the twilight. But they have not learnt from the carnivorous right: to influence their leader, they must snarl. First law of the jungle: intimidation works.

Now backbenchers who have spent the past two years snarling at Mr Major are dripping with insincere but honeyed compliments. Having endured attacks from people like Lords Tebbit and Parkinson, the man in No 10 must now endure their affection. Well, he has earned it. What next? Tea in the Downing Street rose garden with Lord Rees-Mogg?

I can see no going back for him now. The Tory right is already setting new hurdles, listing other candidates he must block, turning its attention to the need for a regular British veto on policy as well as personality. And the Eurosceptics' perception that they are now in effective control of the Prime Minister matches exactly the view of him from Paris and Bonn. His protestations of Euro-enthusiasm will be heard in leaden silence and, urged on by his new admirers, he will slip, willingly enough, further down the slope.

Which leads to where? On the optimistic Tory reading, it leads to a happy Europe of strong nation states co-operating one with another. But events of the past few days remind us how powerful are the national rivalries and how potent the mutual suspicions - even now, even within the European project. It has taken years of leadership and vision to erode those suspicions, just a little. The trouble with the vetoing of Mr Dehaene is that it was part of a pattern. I wish I could be sure that Mr Major is as aware of how much there is for Europe to lose from an era of nationalism as he is of how much he personally can gain as a hero of the Tory right.

(Photograph omitted)

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