Only halfway in is neither in nor out

Now the sceptics are beaten, pro-European ministers should embrace the Union fully, writes Roy Jenkins
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The Independent Online
EUROPE is the British politicians' grave. There is hardly a prime minister of the past 40 years who has not found fevers picked up in the dreaded swamps of Brussels seriously weakening to his political strength, if not fatal. It was the beginning of the end for Harold Macmillan's premiership when De Gaulle blocked Britain's first (but late) application to join and left that government without either an economic or a foreign policy. Harold Wilson was never the same man after losing his esteem and his zest in the tergiversations of 1971-72.

Edward Heath, because he had a more robust consistency on the issue, emerged from the swamps in ruddier health than these two, but suffered from other political infirmities. Margaret Thatcher tried to keep the disease-bearing insects at bay with her handbag for long years, but eventually was the one prime minister visibly to die of the illness. And as for John Major, his whole premiership has been made a misery by his batterings and flutterings on Europe and his life has seemed at times to hang by a string.

So far, I suppose the misnamed Eurosceptics (who are about as coolly sceptical as a band of faith healers) might regard this article as grist to their mill. It just shows what a dreadful place Europe is and that the British would be wise to revert to the habits of pre-war travellers and, anywhere south of Calais, use mineral water for brushing their teeth. Yet the strange fact is that the political germs affect only the British. Continental leaders appear quite immune to them. It is impossible to think of any French or German (or other) statesman who has died of Brussels fever, and very difficult to think of one deeply entangled with European issues whose reputation has not been enhanced as a result. This has been true of Schumann, Spaak, Brandt, Schmidt, Delors, Kohl and, on balance, Mitterrand.

Why is there this gulf in political experience on either side of the Channel? Many would cite in answer the instinctive anti-Europeanism of British public opinion, but in my view that is not a remotely convincing answer. It is politicians rather than the public who have made trouble for other British politicians on Europe. The public, particularly when given a strong lead, as in 1971 and again at the time of the referendum in 1975, have mostly been content, even if without much enthusiasm, to follow it. There is no evidence of a general election, or even of a significant by-election, having been swung primarily on the European issue.

The explanation of the cross-Channel gulf is much more that no post-war British government, with the exception of Heath's, has ever taken more than a semi-detached attitude to the Continent. "Wait and see" has been the motto, half-heartedness has been erected into an art form, and the practice of never joining any initiative until the last moment, and than as reluctantly as possible, has become an enshrined national habit. It is exactly what we have done from the Coal and Steel Community (1950) through the Treaty of Rome and the Economic Community (1957) to the European Monetary System (1979), and which we are now proposing to repeat with the single currency. Here, as a crowning irony, we treat our special opt- out, our licence to make the same mistake for the fourth time, as a national triumph.

Can this persistent attitude possibly be regarded as having been a success? I cannot see that it has served any British government well. It has manifestly reduced our influence in Europe. It has handed over the leadership, lock, stock and barrel, to France and Germany. It has failed to give us a sense of direction in the world or cohesion and self-confidence at home. And it has not even served well the party political interests of British governments. The European issue has consistently, for Conservative and Labour alike, been an exposed flank and not a source of strength.

The lesson ought therefore to be clear. Half-heartedness has not worked. The real choice for Britain ought to be either to become as committed (and therefore nearly as influential - there is some catching up to do) as France and Germany, or to adopt the harsh solution of leaving the European Union. To date no government has been willing to try the former, while the anti-Europeans, a few mavericks apart, shy away from the latter, although it is the only honest and logical conclusion of their propaganda. John Redwood's retreat from secession during his leadership campaign was typical.

But it was no more typical than the dreary acceptance that, although the result of the Conservative leadership election is seen as the rout of the Europhobes, a government headed by alleged Europhiles will merely go on with the policy of stand-off and delay that has failed over a generation and a half to maximise our influence.

I am not in the least against a vigorous defence of Britain's national interest in Europe. I just think it is ineffectively done, and observe with dismay other countries, operating within a more co-operative framework, achieving better results for themselves. There can be few political errors more elementary then to confuse nationalism with national interest. They are more often than not the direct enemy of each other. Yet such a confusion is constantly involved in a weak willingness to seek a British European policy that will propitiate the essentially unpropitiable anti-Europeans. The Labour Party suffered from this misguided confusion in the 1970s and the Conservative Party is suffering still worse in the 1990s.

A specific example of the conflict between nationalism and national interest presents itself in the approach to the Inter-Governmental Conference. As the European Union gets bigger, so it becomes necessary to settle more issues by majority vote of the members rather than requiring unanimity. The alternative is paralysis. Nationalism, at least as narrowly interpreted, demands that Britain resists this. Our national interest demands something different, pointing towards two European objectives: more reform of the Common Agricultural Policy and a further enlargement of the Union to take in some at least of the former Soviet satellites. But the reform of the CAP will always be opposed by one or two countries, and is therefore much more feasible under majority voting. Such reform is also an essential prerequisite for further enlargement, because the Union budget could never afford the application of the present rules to the broad acres of Poland in particular.

Thus knee-jerk nationalism runs head-on into serious, long-term British national interest. Furthermore, if we repeat at the IGC the sad farce of our lonely attempt a year or so ago to block the voting adjustment made necessary by the adhesion of Sweden, Austria and Finland, we shall fortify the already present suspicion that we wish to enlarge the Union mainly in order to weaken it. It will be seen as the old British hankering after a free trade area and nothing more, and if that is seen as our motive our influence will be still further discounted.

This will be a misfortune not merely for Britain but for Europe as a whole. Circumstances have changed a good deal since the community of the Cold War days, and some more flexible thinking and influence from outside the original six members could well be desirable. But it will simply not be accepted from a British government which is thought to be more interested in appeasing its Eurosceptics than in building an effective Union.

What chance is there of a new note being struck in the remaining 18 months or so of a government in which the key positions are occupied by Michael Heseltine (who wrote a famous and very committed book on Europe), Kenneth Clarke (who occasionally speaks on the subject with more courage than any other minister) and Malcolm Rifkind (who when he was last at the Foreign Office, then in a junior position, was very Europhile)? And Mr Major, let us not forget, once appeared to have his heart in a "Britain at the heart of Europe". I would not be too optimistic. The first requisite would be for the Government to change the note of its domestic propaganda, to begin banging a drum for Europe, and not weakly going along with every derogatory and chauvinistic anti-European canard.

Beyond 18 months we (and many in Europe) will be looking forward to a new British government. How firm a European will Tony Blair prove? He has made some good speeches on Europe, and one rather less good one in Bonn. Let us hope that he can learn from the record and not follow the dreary pattern of speaking hopefully in opposition and being half-hearted and foot-dragging in office, when it counts. Robustness on the issue would be the best way to escape that swamp infection which has weakened and dragged down so many of his predecessors.

Lord Jenkins was president of the European Commission from 1977-81.