So much for Edinburgh, now the final battle

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The Independent Online
THESE are times when success means less than usual. It has shrivelled to mean merely avoidance of disaster. Europe's economic and political tensions are now so strong that a bitter failure in Edinburgh would have put the Community's future in question.

The decay, starting with the collapse of Maastricht, would have happened slowly and piecemeal. But, for the first time in the memory of most of its citizens, the return of a suspicious, divided Europe of prickly nation-states would have been thinkable.

Edinburgh made this less likely, though it is still possible. If the Danes fail to ratify, as Douglas Hurd made clear yesterday, Britain would not join the others in an inner-core Europe. Thus much have the self-styled Eurosceptics already achieved. They, as well as the Danes, could yet help to unpick the Community. But that prospect has, thankfully, receded quite a bit.

The European Community may be hard to understand in all its workings, and harder still to feel affection for. Its roots are shallow. The sub-heraldic pomp of this new, bureaucratic imperium evokes no glow of pride. And as the private bartering of these summits reminds us, it is only feebly democratic. But it is still better than the likely alternative. Its supporters may be more cautious these days, but its enemies are as incredible as ever. It had to be saved.

Because of that, I could not find a soul at Edinburgh who expected anything radically different from the outcome that was finally agreed there. Ministers briefed, at times, with long faces. As Felipe Gonzalez fought on past dinnertime on Saturday, there was a frisson of real worry: perhaps his Thatcheresque stubbornness would cause the card-house of bargains to collapse at the final moment.

In the end, though, we got what we expected. That is not to underestimate the skill of John Major, Douglas Hurd and other leaders in picking their way through the negotiations. That a deal 'has' to be done does not make doing it any easier: this was by all accounts as brain-achingly difficult and exhausting a summit as Maastricht itself.

Its hidden heroes were the officials, the sleepless army of super-clerks and lawyers who moulded the fears and petulance of politicians into texts. But a dim, lazy or ill-tempered British prime minister might have been inadequate to the chairmanship and ego-stroking that was still required.

Mr Major was more than up to this. Appreciating the underlying weakness of the Spanish position, he did not allow himself to be blackmailed. He deserves a relieved smile of thanks from his fellow citizens, as well as the public tributes from fellow leaders. But this was a modest success: it was not a

triumph.

What happened, really? Twelve men managed to agree that they still agreed with what they had agreed about a year ago. And having failed to convince enough of their citizens about that earlier agreement, they took some extra steps to remedy this. Unlike Maastricht, or Rome itself, it was a putting- back-together, not a putting together.

So much for Edinburgh. Mr Major's image as a deal-maker was confirmed and he rescued the British presidency from ignominy. Negotiation and an appetite for detail have always been his strengths, though. They do not absolve him from the need to acquire and demonstrate new skills. Above all, he needs to master the House of Commons sufficiently to carry the Maastricht Bill convincingly there.

He needs to win the arguments as well as the votes. He needs to demonstrate that his zeal is as fiery as the zeal of Sir Teddy Taylor, Bill Cash and Lord Tebbit. These people and their numerous allies have been preparing for a parliamentary Armageddon. If, in their view, Parliament is to be subverted, its final fight will be spectacular. And there will be much finger-pointing at the extra concessions that were won last week by the Danes, free to have their own unfettered citizenship, referendums and so on.

The latest calculations are still that the Bill has a wide margin of firm support in the Commons when the crunch votes come. There are enough Labour Party people who feel that the loss of the treaty would be disastrous (John Smith, no doubt, included).

The matter of timing, though, remains tricky. If the Danish referendum is concluded satisfactorily in May then Mr Major needs to have the Bill ready to leave the Commons shortly afterwards. Anti-Maastrichtians in the House of Lords are numerous and determined enough to give ministers a long and sticky summer there.

So, to get it to the Lords in time, late- night sessions and the clearing of other Commons business will probably be necessary.

Even then, ministers in the upper house may have to annoy Mr Major's more heavily armed aristocratic supporters by summoning them down off the mountains and moors in September to save the Bill, since it needs to have passed all its stages before the Queen's Speech in November. It is sometimes said that Maastricht is not a life-or- death issue: a fair number of red deer and grouse may disagree.

More seriously, Mr Major will make the final battle for ratification a purely parliamentary affair at his peril. His arguments against a referendum are thin. He ought to be worried about the low affection that the country and the Conservative Party feel for this central plank of his policy.

The long and angry Westminster confrontation will not be something that confines itself to Conservatives in Parliament: it will split local parties, business organisations and even families. Indeed, it already has. In general terms, it is fair, and a little worrying, to point out that the devil (I mean the Europhobes) have had the best tunes.

Despite the Prime Minister's promises, and his awareness of the danger of Europe seeming irrelevant, Mr Major has not made the Community argument in terms that percolate below the tiny class of political obsessives.

Edinburgh was a vital success for his resilience and patience. But it would be foolish to open the champagne quite yet. One success does not a triumph make; good chairmanship is not the same as great leadership.

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