Why Corfu is a little like the Falklands

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IT IS remarkable how little today's leading British Europhiles appear to know about the object of their devotion. In public life as in private, such infatuations are apt to be costly, and some of the price of this one was beginning to be paid by the opposition parties this week.

When Mr Major found himself in a minority of one at Corfu and stood his ground, the opposition leaders wildly misjudged the significance of that transaction. They behaved like people who believe that Europe is really headed towards federalism, and that Britain is missing the Federal Express while the Eleven blissfully rush on.

Nothing of the kind is happening, as has become clear in the aftermath of Mr Major's stand. The other European states have no intention of going ahead along the federalist track without Britain. Most of them don't want to go along the federalist track at all. True, Maastricht has been ratified, and an entity known as 'European Union' is now in existence. The bureaucrats in Brussels are intent on developing this notional European Union into full-blown federalism. Chancellor Kohl and President Mitterrand are committed to producing as much as possible of an appearance of movement in that direction. Hence the nomination of Jean- Luc Dehaene, the candidate whom Brussels wanted.

Mr Kohl and Mr Mitterrand are still powerful. The initial support for the Dehaene candidature from nine other governments, was a measure of their power. The collapse of that support, once Mr Major stood by his veto, starkly revealed the limits of that power. The net result, in European terms, has been a rehabilitation of the veto, whose withering away has been the most prized objective of the Brussels bureaucracy.

Some of those who had pledged support to Mr Dehaene, under pressure from Paris and Bonn, privately rejoiced at their candidate's discomfiture: a not infrequent phenomenon in international elections. And each of the weaker countries, however federalist the habitual rhetoric of its spokespersons, has an interest in the preservation of the veto. National interests have not disappeared inside the EU, however British Europhiles may fantasise to the contrary. And - at a lower level - the possession of a veto enhances the price that each country can exact, when being lobbied for its vote, by a richer and more powerful country.

The worst of being starry-eyed about Europe is that you fail to see such sordid, but politically important, phenomena as that last, and therefore fail to understand the situation as a whole.

The most interesting, and the most significant, reactions to the Major veto have been those from Germany. Mr Kohl was angry, certainly, and that may have something to do with that apparently rather crass - and probably unsustainable - Bonn ban on British beef imports immediately after the Corfu veto. But in Germany itself it was Mr Kohl, not Mr Major, who was seen as being at fault. The serious German press this week was heavily against Mr Kohl, and the German Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, is openly scornful of the bungling by Mr Kohl's advisers.

Mr Kinkel told Bild newspaper earlier this week that Germany's most important task in the early weeks of the European presidency would be 'to get the cow off the ice'. That it was Mr Kohl, not Mr Major, who had got the cow on to the ice was clearly implied. Once the cow is off the ice, Anglo- German relations should be significantly improved, and British influence in Europe enhanced by John Major's determined and principled opposition to what is now almost universally recognised as a foolish and arrogant attempt by Paris and Bonn to impose a candidate of their choice as successor to Jacques Delors.

It should be clear to all but the most confirmed Europhiles that the ratification of Maastricht represents not the opening of the road to federalism but the end of that road. Mr Kohl and Mr Mitterrand may still be among the true believers, but their successors will not be. The younger politicians in the European parties committed to Maastricht are less impressed by the success of the federalist line than by the political cost of it all, and the unexpected resistance they have had to overcome. They will be grateful to Mr Major for putting federalism out of its misery - or rather out of the misery it has come increasingly to represent for them. They can continue to say the habitual federalist things, in the appropriate contexts, and rely on the British veto to see that nothing more is done, and therefore no more controversies generated, in fulfilment of the agenda to which their rhetoric still, theoretically, commits them.

I believe that Corfu will stand out in retrospect not only in the history of Europe generally but in the political history of the most important European countries. It will be seen as the beautiful setting in which the European federalist project quietly breathed its last; seen also as the place in which the character of a post-Kohl, post-Mitterrand Europe began to emerge.

I suspect that the consequences for British politics may also be important, perhaps decisive. It may be that 'the Corfu factor' will be of comparable significance in the political career of Mr Major and the fortunes of his party to that which the 'Falklands factor' came to represent for Mrs Thatcher.

Not that the two sets of events, in themselves, are closely similar, except for this: in both cases, a British prime minister, on British national grounds, successfully took a stand against foreign opposition and in both cases the Opposition withheld support from the prime minister. But in the case of Corfu, the Opposition leaders actually attacked the Prime Minister for an action that turned out to be a quite notable British success, leading to a considerable improvement in Britain's international position.

The Corfu factor and the Falklands factor both demonstrate the capacity of the Tories to draw on British nationalism, and the capacity of Labour, in particular, to underestimate that source of support. Labour should watch out for and be wary of its Europhiles.