'Tis the season to be sensible

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The Independent Online
The season of good will and back-to-back summits is upon us. In the case of the European Union summit in Madrid, starting today, the overlap between summits and goodwill may be small.

Mr Major goes to Spain determined to impersonate Margaret Thatcher. A European single currency in 1999 is not only bad for me, he will tell the gathering, it is bad for all of you. And, what is more, the Conservative Party cannot accept the changes prescribed by the rest of you - more majority voting in Brussels, stronger foreign and security policy - to help the EU to embrace the former Soviet satellites to the east.

Mr Major may be right about European Monetary Union for the wrong reasons. About the rest of the Madrid agenda, he is not so right.

EMU first. What a tangle of half-truths, mis-statements and crushing ironies the debate about the single currency has become. On the one hand, we have the startling sight of Tory right-wingers cheering on the French trades unions in their battle against public-spending cuts and welfare reforms. Why? Because they see that the Juppe government is pursuing its Thatcherite agenda for European reasons: the need to squeeze the French economy into the debt and inflation rules for membership of the EMU club within two years.

On the other hand, we have pro-European progressives, social marketeers - from Labour Euro MPs to the 1968 rabble rouser Daniel Cohn Bendit - supporting the drive to a single currency over the heads of the French (and now Belgian) demonstrators. This is very odd. The harsh EMU timetable will force many EU countries to hobble the welfare policies that have been the basis of their post-war social consensus. There may be arguments - and not just Thatcherite arguments - for boiling down the bloated public budgets of France, Belgium, Austria, Italy and so on. But in just two years? In the name of a single European currency, which already has little public support? And at a time when there are already German alarm bells tolling of European recession on the way?

The other argument expected in Madrid - over the agenda for next year's rolling conference on wider EU reforms - presents quite a different case. The ideas delivered to the summit by senior officials - and the separate but similar proposals from France and Germany - are hardly revolutionary. More majority voting by EU governments in Brussels? This is just an extension of what is already happening; it needs to be pushed through to prevent an 18- or 20-member Union from seizing up. A stouter European foreign and security policy? This is more Euro-sensible than Euro-federal. Look at five criminally wasteful years in the Balkans. Honest argument about the scope and detail is possible, but not blanket insistence that nothing can be done to move EU foreign policy out of the talking shop.

The Prime Minister must not allow his hands to be hopelessly tied by his right wing. On EMU, he talks something close to sense. On the rest, he must avoid plunging Britain, once again, into pointless isolation.