Non, he cannot be De Gaulle: Andrew Marshall deplores a stupid clash over Europe that has ended in retreat

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The Independent Online
Everybody is allowed to say no. Some find it easier than others; a few make an art form of it, like Charles de Gaulle. John Major doesn't; off to Huntingdon-les-deux-Eglises with him.

The Government picked a fight this year with its European colleagues over a change in the European Union's voting rules that will follow the admission of four new EU members. With Spain, it fought the other 10, claiming that it would never give up.

This weekend, as foreign ministers met in the amiably scruffy Greek town of Ioannina, the plan came unstitched. The only deal on offer bears little resemblance to what Britain said it wanted. Non; peut-etre; oui. There are rumours of a cabinet split on the issue, which in the circumstances may be the best thing to emerge from two months of witless time-wasting.

Of course, British obduracy in the EU is nothing new, and has often borne fruit. It rarely works, however, when presented as simply blustering opposition, and in the end it put the black spot on Baroness Thatcher. Her attempts to block as 'Madame Non' were a key part of her downfall.

But this latest little local difficulty was supposed to be part of a new British strategy towards Europe, one that officials and ministers have been trying to signpost for the past year. It was expressed in the Prime Minister's article in the Economist last year, in the Conservative party conference, and in recent speeches by ministers, Douglas Hurd included. The aim was to reconstruct the party's commitment to Europe, but to fuse it with a commitment to the rights and obligations of nation states, and a shrewd and calculating view of British interest.

A kind of British Gaullism is how one official described it: taking a critical, but constructive, stance. There have been repeated attempts to draw parallels with France, which threatens repeatedly to block the EU, yet gets away with it - is respected for it even. If Johnny Frog can handle this, this message seemed to be, then so can Johnny Major.

The collapse of this latest battle, over an issue nobody understood and which would make little difference to Britain's real prospects, shows the limits to the approach. There are questions, above all of tactics, which in this case went disastrously wrong. For that, the blame may lie elsewhere than Downing Street, of course. There is bound to be a wringing of hands and a search for the officials who made this possible. Were vital signals missed? Tactical advantages handed away? The pass sold by sleek men in four-button suits with Liberty ties and a love of foreigners?

But we have been here before. A nebulous group of officials was blamed by Lady Thatcher for conceding so much when the Single Act was signed; and for the ambush at the Rome summit in 1990 over monetary union which helped to grease the slippery slope that took her out of office. It is all too easy to turn on those who carry out the decisions, not those who make them. Britain has a cadre of highly efficient professionals dealing with Europe, all of whom spend most of their lives looking over their shoulders to make sure that crises like this do not happen.

The real problem is one of strategy, and for that the politicians should be blamed. The failure flows from a set of contradictory beliefs that were never squared, from a policy that made no sense, and nobody, not even the wily Sir John Kerr, Britain's permanent representative in Brussels, could weld that into another British triumph.

British Gaullism is a mistake. More than that, it is an ugly, stupid mistake, and it won't work. It lacks a coherent vision of where the country as a whole belongs, where it is going. It is a negative, reactive way of approaching Europe, one woven from suspicion and mistrust rather than the stubborn pursuit of national interest.

There is a lack of realism in it, of course. As British business knows only too well, our present, our future, are too tied to Europe for us to distance ourselves. We are too pragmatic to go for Gaullist nationalism; we are too liberal, as a nation, to have the commitment to the position that France has made its own. It is a hat that doesn't fit.

But there is also a crippling lack of idealism about the Major approach to Europe. It represents a failure to grasp the real possibilities for Britain if it plays a constructive role, if it seizes the opportunities offered by the great shifts in the Continent's politico-techtonic plates, if it reaches for a new place among the nations of Europe.

Strategy has been woefully missing over the past two months as the Government has drifted into a battle that it could not hope to win. At some points, it seemed as if (pace Mr Major in the Guardian) London was ready to block the entry of new members into the EU; at others, as if that was the last thing anybody wanted. The lead was uncertain and hard to read, provoking protests even from the usually docile Conservative Members of the European Parliament.

It is part of an ugly, cross-eyed pattern that is becoming all too familiar. The Conservative Party is too divided to offer any positive strategy. Instead, the negative is accentuated, the stubborn pursuit of blocking minorities and exclusions and derogations and exemptions that ministers seek to grab in last-minute negotiating 'triumphs'. Since Britain argues so often alone, it is more likely than not to end up having to make the best of a bad job. That is why the message taken from this latest shift will be as it is: defeat, climb-down, cave-in.

The attempt to weld together a New Look, a British Gaullism, was always doomed to failure, because it is in reality nothing more than a way of putting a Band-aid over the gaping wound in the Tory party. Nothing more. And that, on a wet Sunday in Northern Greece, was the way it looked, as Mr Hurd and his long-faced aides traipsed off to the airport and back to face a fractious Cabinet.

This world-view is not something that will be easily erased. The Conservatives have helped to frame a new discourse on Europe, one that is small- minded, sees EU politics as a zero-sum game, and regards those with enthusiasm for the integration of Europe as traitors. It was evident in Mr Major's attempt last week to stigmatise John Smith as 'Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels'. Please.

Behind this pathetic rhetoric, a more odious and dangerous situation is developing. A national myth is being created of betrayal and isolation, and it will be hard to shift. A legacy of ill-will is being created that will damage Britain's efforts to protect its real national interests. If the Conservative Party is going to split over this issue, then, for the sake of the rest of us, let it do so now and have done.

(Photograph omitted)

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