Major's hoarse bellow from the island

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The Independent Online
NO ONE should doubt the audacious nature of the 'William and Mary' speech made by John Major last night. He was in strikingly aggressive form. Maybe it is something to do with the House of Orange. Anyway, his curt dismissal of the original vision of the founders of European union as outdated, and his argument that there is no such thing as a possible European democracy, threw down a gauntlet in the tradition of Margaret Thatcher's Bruges speech of six years ago.

Unfortunately, however, he failed to deal with the realities of power, or to follow the logic of his own argument. Mr Major sees 'a real danger' in talk of a hard core to the EU (as French and German politicians have been suggesting). He says: 'I recoil from ideas for a union in which some would be more equal than others.' He adds that 'the political dimension is crucial'. He complains about the 'Britain isolated' headlines.

And then he goes right on to argue that it is 'perfectly healthy' for some member states to integrate more closely than others, specifically citing economic and monetary union, as well as defence. But if France, Germany and some smaller countries link their economic and monetary policies, while Britain chooses not to, then almost by definition they have become a hard core. The EMU members would consult more closely and deeply than others, because they would have to. They would come to co-ordinate their policies and thinking. Already, the French and German ruling classes are partially intertwined. And the politics will flow from that: this would be a union in which some were indeed more equal than others.

Britain would be left to assert that she was important too because of her involvement in defence policy - indeed, Mr Major said we would be 'at the core' of that. But this is no substitute: defence is not a purely European matter and, in day to day politics, economic policy matters far more. Look at our own Cabinet pecking-order. It is not possible to separate the issue of EMU from that of power and influence within the union and it is hard to believe the Prime Minister is serious in trying to do so.

But the speech comes alive and the hares start racing when Mr Major turns to the future of democracy. He rightly focuses on the widespread disillusion with the EU among voters who 'do not feel that a huge, remote, multilingual, multicultural, multinational amalgam would be responsive to them . . .' He rightly cites the post-Maastricht struggles across Europe.

Then he turns to mocking the pretensions of the European Parliament, using language that might make Lady Thatcher forgive him his other sins. She, remember, called for 'willing and active co-operation between sovereign states' as the best basis for Europe. He attacks the Strasbourg folk for seeing themselves as the future democratic focus for the union: 'This is a flawed ambition, because the European Union is an association of states, deriving its basic democratic legitimacy through national parliaments . . . People will continue to see national parliaments as their democratic focus.'

This institution is the same one the Prime Minister assured us was so important during the European elections in June. But you would almost get the impression that he had something against European elections as such: he complains about the 'pitiably low turn-out' and the 'unrepresentative and rather incoherent range of parties' at Strasbourg. An uncharitable soul (there are none at this newspaper) might be forgiven for wondering whether he didn't have something against the result.

His overall conclusion, though, is unmistakeable: there can be no European democracy as such, just a shifting and complex series of deals among governments which the Prime Minister acknowledges will mean more late nights and harder work to keep common aims on track.

How is that supposed to square with the transparency and simplicity which Mr Major also says is democratically important? Whatever the failings of the Strasbourg elections (and turnout on the continent is mostly higher than here), there is at least the vestige of voter involvement. The alternative seems uncomfortably close to a Europe of the Chancelleries, kept far above the heads of the common and uncomprehending herd.

The logic of this vision is of a Europe whose institutional business is done without popular involvement and is frequently difficult to explain. This may be the way the union is moving but it is not a notably attractive alternative to the present problems. Similarly, it is entirely plausible that France, Germany and some others will bind themselves together in ways which British Conservativism cannot stomach. But that will mean a central core and, despite the shouts of alarm in last night's speech, there is no clear sign of how Mr Major expects to avoid such an outcome. In the end, there is no compromise between federalists and nationalists, except maximum confusion, which is what Downing Street appears to favour.

That this is mockery on a rather textual and theoretical level, I concede. The inner core campaign may well crumble. All may be well. And it is naive to complain about intellectual muddle which derives directly from the Tory party's internal agonies.

The truth, though, is that there is depressingly little meeting of minds on the future of the European Union. Instincts in France and Germany are still about pulling together, binding in, cementing. The William and Mary speech is unlikely to change many minds. This was political philosophy; but it was philosophy distorted by the dictates of party management. And it was a fiery rebuke to Franco-Germania; but it was a rebuke bellowed hoarsely from an island offshore.