Major got it right, but nobody's listening

At last, Britain has something to say to its European partners. But we are too marginal to matter
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Europe's Doubting John, the British Prime Minister who, confronted with the great matter of monetary union, answers ``dunno'', has had a good few days. The Majorca summit exposed, rather brutally, the unanswered political questions that surround the single currency. And for once Mr Major was asking the right questions rather than dodging them.

He remains a leader on the sidelines of the argument, calmly pointing out flaws, mildly raising questions, without a strategy or answer of his own. But his very mildness may help to rebuild his reputation in British politics at a time when the passionate enemies and supporters of monetary union are both starting to sound like deranged Old Testament demagogues.

Bernard Connolly, the European Commission official who recently attacked EMU in his book The Rotten Heart of Europe, damaged a serious argument by retreating into paranoiac witterings about a new European Stalinism of evil conspiracies and savage repression, before warning of war in Europe if the single currency is made. But the EMU enthusiasts are equally culpable. They imply that, without it, Europe is bound to disintegrate into a malign nationalistic competition and even war.

So it's a choice between war in Europe or war in Europe, then? Confronted by this apocalyptic screeching from both corners as the Maastricht timetable looks ever tighter, voters are likely to find Major's still small voice of calm, with all its vagueness and modesty, rather reassuring.

Reports of a rapprochement with the Tory Euro-rebels seem premature, but for the first time there is a real prospect of the Conservatives going into the next election without gaping splits on Europe. This is partly thanks to Major's gamble when he resigned and forced a leadership contest earlier in the year; by defeating his enemies in open combat he has ensured that the party's European policy is now set in stone until 1997. Because the serious people in the party understand this, there will be populist eruptions at the conference, but probably not a full-scale attack by the Tory right.

Monetary union, though, is high politics. And the bigger question is whether the Conservatives' decision to have no view about monetary union is right for the country and the EU. And the bigger answer is that it is not.

What Majorca underlined is that the road to monetary union is going to be a rocky and dangerous passage - for all Europeans, not merely head- scratching islanders. We are going to hear more, over the next year or so, about the anger of the Italians, Belgians and others about being excluded from the new single currency zone by the Germans; this row cannot be avoided. France is undergoing severe economic pain, and has a surging nationalist right. In Germany, antagonism between those politicians and bankers who resent the loss of the mark, and Chancellor Kohl, is coming increasingly into the open.

More generally, there is something surreal about European politics at the moment, as hard-edged, detailed plans for the new currency are methodically hammered out at the technical level, while the really big political questions surrounding them are brushed aside as too embarrassing or hard to discuss.

Tactically, this will further help Major and the Conservatives because as the hubbub grows, voters will begin to notice and take fright. But in the longer term none of this confusion helps Britain or Europe. It certainly does not make the posture of the Major administration - lounging back, arms folded, one eyebrow raised over a supercilious, quizzical smile - a wise one. For with something this important, you ultimately have to be in favour of it or against it. Having no view has allowed Britain to challenge the Euro-orthodoxy and, just now, to look rather acute for doing so. But has it mattered? Has it touched the thinking of Franco-Germania? No. Years of scepticism have turned our political leaders into mere commentators.

Unless the monetary union project collapses first, then at some time in the next few years a British leader who is clear about our interests is going to emerge and will then, because of that clarity, dominate the domestic argument. The state of British public opinion suggests that this leader, whoever it is, will be openly hostile to monetary union in the near future.

At least - big breath - I hope so. The foundation of liberty in Europe lies not in commissions or central banks but in democratic politics; and politically, Europe's nations are nothing like ready for this gamble. The combination of economic pain in the less prosperous areas, plus higher taxation for transfer payments in the richer areas, is not a happy European prospectus for the late 1990s. It is time for some of the EU's political leaders to stand up and admit it.

Monetary union may come one day, at least among countries whose electorates are overwhelmingly in favour of political union and whose economies are very integrated. Then, it would offer clear benefits to business and travellers. But for the time being, the risk-reward ratio counsels extreme caution. This thing is too dangerous.

To say so is not to impugn either Kohl or the French political establishment, who have idealistic motives as well as selfish ones, and are not the power- crazed loonies of British Euro-sceptical folklore. Nor is it to be anti- European, any more than declaring against the building of high towers on marshy ground is an attack on architecture. An early drive to EMU is likelier to break the EU, by driving asunder the core countries and the weaker economies, than to strengthen it.

But who is there in mainstream politics to say this? Had Major made a powerfully pro-European case since arriving in office, he might by now be seen as a mainstream EU thinker who could question the post-Maastricht orthodoxy without the French and Germans seeing him as an Anglo-Saxon saboteur. But that's all in the past. Labour, meanwhile, has backed monetary union in principle and Tony Blair had his best parliamentary day earlier this year when he savaged Major for his indecision. It would be difficult, though not impossible, to have second thoughts now.

There is little doubt that the Conservatives' vaguely anti-European posture and Major's hands-in-pockets criticism of the great European project of our times will play rather well in Britain between now and the next election. But that's small beer in a sidelined state.

Outside these islands, where his questions about monetary union matter most, they will have far too little impact. That's the real sadness of Majorca. The warning made to the Tories was always that their anti-Brussels posturing would strip them of influence when it really mattered. Now it matters. Now they have something urgent and important to say - and it's too late to get a serious hearing, not at a press conference, but from France and Germany. These have been a good few days for Mr Major, yes - but a bad few years.