Someone should tell Rifkind that Europe is not a pick-and-mix counter The Foreign Secretary is giving in to the pick-and-mix delusion

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"The Furtherance of British interests should be the only object of a British Foreign Secretary" (Lord Palmerston).

"Occasionally it may be appropriate to accept a loss of influence if that is the only way we can protect our interests" (Malcolm Rifkind, British Foreign Secretary).

WHAT DOES Malcolm Rifkind mean by that? Since he laid down this principle in a speech at the Royal Institute of International Affairs 10 days ago, people have continued to scratch their heads. Some think they know what he means, and they either hate it or love it. Others think that he meant nothing in particular, but was merely making a noise designed to soothe Tory Eurosceptics.

The context was European integration. Mr Major - as nobody will let him forget - once insisted that Britain must be at "the heart of Europe", in order not to be left out of decisions which would affect her. Mr Rifkind has now qualified this. There are some decisions worth missing. He cited the Social Chapter and the Schengen agreement on frontier control. By staying out of these, Britain would admittedly lose influence - but preserve British interests.

Back in July, when he moved to the Foreign Office, this column invited Mr Rifkind to be sleekit: a Scots word denoting a sort of vulpine, dissembling cunning. But I am not sure how cunning this Chatham House speech was.

On one side, it has deeply embittered politicians and diplomats who are "pro-Europe" and had not expected Mr Rifkind to let them down. They have long, pitiless memories, and will be dangerous to Mr Rifkind one day. On the other flank, the sceptics - while delighted - can hardly hide their scepticism about the sincerity of Mr Rifkind's change of heart. For Bill Cash, Teddy Taylor or John Redwood, those words don't mean that the Foreign Secretary has gone through a mystic conversion experience. They mean that he can read a scoreboard, which says that the Eurosceptics are making a comeback after John Major checked them in the summer with his snap resignation.

The Daily Telegraph commented spitefully: "Only if the Tories remain in office for the end of the Inter-Governmental Conference will it be possible to judge the depth of Mr Rifkind's conversion". In other words, if there is still a Tory government when the IGC starts in 1996 or 1997, Mr Rifkind will have to stand up and fight for what he said at Chatham House. But if the Tories are out of power, he can safely revert to his natural "pro-Europe" attitude.

His old friends feel betrayed by him; his new friends do not yet trust him. Low marks for cunning, then. How about dissembling? Here it may be that Mr Rifkind has overdone things. His performance was all too convincing - enough to alienate those whose support he will continue to need.

Having a nose for realities, he is probably aware of the following points: First, that the full Eurosceptic position is the stupid, xenophobic isolationism which has always existed on the Tory fringe. It is made dangerous now only by the narrow Commons majority - and by its adoption by clever opportunists in or near the Cabinet. Second, that the Europhobes are actually correct in foreseeing that further European integration will force a transformation of British institutions - a benign one. Third, that an "independent" Britain effectively detached from the European Union would also suffer transformation - but a malign one: into a rusting oil-rig governed by slogans and coerced by starvation wages.

Anyone who trims towards Europhobia, then, needs discreet allies to prevent the manoeuvre getting out of control. The main body of these allies is the Foreign Office itself, and then the larger but less focused community of business people, academics, teachers, scientists and writers whose main business is with the lands of the European Union. Mr Rifkind can annoy that constituency, from time to time, but he must not lose it altogether. Above all, he cannot afford to alienate his own Department.

The Telegraph crowed that Mr Rifkind had "torn up and scattered a hallowed Foreign Office doctrine": the principle that Britain must not let itself be relegated to the "slow lane" of Europe. Others felt that diplomacy was about acquiring influence, and that there could be no such thing as British influence which damaged British interests. To deny that is to devalue what the Foreign Office does. It does not just ruffle feathers. It hurts.

But there is another point. Pace the Foreign Office, it is sometimes true that a national interest is best served by leaving something alone. I have argued this about Russia and the northern Caucasus, where the mirage of influence can suck the hugest nation into disaster. But the European Union is not like that. Russia could have stayed out of Chechnya without losing anything of importance. A Britain which stays out of Europe loses almost everything of importance.

That is true of small things and big. Mr Rifkind quoted the Social Chapter and the Schengen agreements as cases where influence can safely be sacrificed to national interest. I cannot understand this argument. Both are cases where self-exclusion only means that Britain will limp crossly along in the wake of decisions made by others. The minimum wage and worker representation on boards will eventually arrive in this country ( soon, if Labour wins the next election), while the idea that Britain has no need to adapt to European frontier cooperation is patently absurd.

On a larger scale, this government seems to think that it is in the national interest to stay out of monetary union. Helmut Schmidt, former chancellor of Germany, last week spelt out what would happen if EMU itself failed: "Within a few decades, the Deutschmark and German financial institutions ... would dominate the whole of Europe and Germany would become financially a world superpower". And if EMU does come off, a country outside it would find its own currency completely dependent on the almighty Ecu - but without the influence on the European Bank of an EMU member.

In short, Europe is a place where these interest/influence sums simply do not work out. There is no area of the European Union where Britain profits from giving up influence. Moreover, it is not easy to give up influence in one Euro-matter and retain it in another. The other day, a European banker said to me: "I see some really good British ideas getting ignored, simply because they come from Britain."

Mr Rifkind said at Chatham House that "this pragmatic approach should not be interpreted as implying a lack of enthusiasm or commitment to the European Union". But that is just how it is interpreted. To deconstruct the integration plans into a set of individual policies, each to be accepted or rejected solely by the criterion of whether it profits Britain - that is not "pragmatism" but delusion.

The European Union is what is says it is: a union. Its whole is more than its parts. It has been built on countless small trade-offs - and one big one. This is the recognition that the Community or Union is good in itself, that its growth and health is in the interest of its members. A national government has to measure a short-term loss to its own policies against a long-term gain to all. It is that sort of calculation which Mr Rifkind has now banned. But national egoism is no longer a choice. Britain in Europe has only the option to give and take - or be taken to the cleaners and given up for dead.

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