Which family do we belong to?

John Major had to choose between the Commonwealth and the EU, writes Tony Barber
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The Independent Online
A generation hence, historians will grapple with the question of why John Major found it necessary to deliver such a passionate defence to Commonwealth leaders of France's right to conduct nuclear tests in the South Pacific. Some may decide that his behaviour in Auckland was just one more of those bizarre episodes that characterised the fading months of a Tory hegemony stretching back two decades.

Others, however, may see the Prime Minister's support for France as a defining moment in Britain's post-1945 development. Caught between Commonwealth friendships and historical sentiments on the one hand and Britain's obligations and interests in Europe on the other, he felt compelled to plump for Europe. Tugged one way by an idea of Britain as a country that still thought and acted globally, and drawn the other way by evidence that Britain's prosperity and security were fundamentally tied to the European continent, even this ambiguously pro-European prime minister calculated that it was necessary, when the chips were down, to show solidarity with France rather than the Commonwealth.

It would not be going too far, some historians may conclude, to suggest that Britain had made no gesture so explicitly distancing itself from the Commonwealth in favour of Europe since Edward Heath brought the country into the then-European Economic Community in 1973. It was a gesture all the more striking in that, by offending the near-universal anti-nuclear sentiment in Australia and New Zealand, it could not but accelerate their transformation not just into republics cut off from the British crown but into countries shaping their culture, trade and foreign policy more and more around the perception of themselves as Asian-Pacific powers.

Was it only a sense of Britain's inevitable European destiny that prompted Mr Major to align himself fully with President Jacques Chirac and the force de frappe? As with all decisions that reflect a government's understanding of what constitute basic national interests, it is likely that many factors interwove themselves in Mr Major's mind before he took the decision to isolate himself among 50 fellow leaders in Auckland.

One, almost certainly, was the view that as a nuclear power of broadly equal standing to France it simply did not make sense for Britain to condemn the resumption of French tests at Mururoa. Another, to paraphrase the Prime Minister himself, was the point that a country should not antagonise one of its biggest and nearest neighbours unless there are exceptional reasons to do so. If one has to make oneself unpopular, better that one's critics are on the other side of the world.

Two other factors seem to have been at play. The first is that, ever since Mr Chirac's election last May, the Conservative government has sensed an opportunity to enlist French support for a much slimmed-down programme of institutional integration at next year's European Union conference on internal reform. The hope is that British support for France's nuclear tests could bring a pay-off in the form of French support for Britain's vision of an EU that resists the temptation of federalism (which, in Tory but not Continental usage, equals central rule from Brussels).

Whether such hopes are justified, in the light of France's traditional emphasis on its alliance with pro-federal Germany, remains to be seen. It is certainly true, though, that Mr Chirac has made very few pro-federal noises since May, and that Mr Major has pleased the President by sticking up for him on the nuclear issue when all other EU states have either condemned him or, as in Germany's case, failed to offer convincing support.

The other factor determining Mr Major's stance in Auckland concerns Britain's relationship with the United States. Like all Nato's European members since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Britain has been forced to recognise that the end of the US-Soviet confrontation is resulting, slowly but surely, in a diminishing sense of commitment to Europe on the part of US leaders. This is especially noticeable in Congress, among the Republican majority and Democrats alike.

The prospect of an eventual US military disengagement from Europe is more real now than at any time since the aftermath of the First World War. This means that Mr Major, like future British leaders, needs to think hard about how to provide for Britain's security in a context that is becoming increasingly European rather than transatlantic. This, in turn, may mean supporting French nuclear tests, because it is conceivable, if not yet certain, that a joint Franco-British deterrent will one day form part of a common European defence.

If the above analysis of Mr Major's thinking is broadly accurate, it shows that his isolation at Auckland proceeded from quite different causes to those that left Margaret Thatcher on a limb at Commonwealth meetings in the Eighties. She based her robust opposition to sanctions on apartheid South Africa on moral and ideological grounds rather than on any sense that vital British interests were at stake in the preservation of white minority rule there.

Undoubtedly, she was attracted to the view that South Africa, however shameful its internal system, at least played a part in the Western world's anti-Communist front. But she also thought it hypocritical that Commonwealth countries that did not practise democracy at home should parade as pious crusaders against racism in South Africa.

Mr Major's problem in Auckland was not moral or ideological. It was how to explain to countries with special historical and linguistic connections to Britain that such ties cannot be allowed to constrain British policies when the national interest is at stake.

Perhaps the argument carried some weight with Commonwealth leaders who recognised that they would behave no differently from Britain in similar circumstances. But whatever the strength of Mr Major's case, the Auckland summit made it clearer than ever that Britain, ironically seen as a lukewarm European by most of its EU allies, has little choice these days but to put Europe first.