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Rogaly Joe, Financial Times - 31 gennaio 1995
Great Britain and the EU.


by Joe Rogaly

SUMMARY: The UK cabinet, it seems, threatens a machine-gun spray of vetoes at the IGC (Intergovernmental Conference of 1996), crying: "Freeze, Europe. One move and we'll blast you". (Financial Times, 31-01-1995)

The Conservatives' war of words over Europe is a battle of abstractions. So is Labour's exchange of verbal hostilities over Clause 4 of its constitution. Britain's governing party is living in nightmare-land; the principal opposition inhabits a hall of distorting mirrors. Mr John Major is the captive of 19th-century imaginations; Mr Tony Blair a potential victim of the far more terrible phantoms of the early part of the 20th. Like boys obsessed with Nintendo games, the prime minister is feverishly thumbing the buttons on Master of the Eurosceptics; his rival, the leader of the Labour party, is turning bug-eyed over The Claws that Sunders. Perhaps we should be grateful. It might keep them out of mischief.

The above exposition of the state of British politics may sound light-headed, but the intention is serious. Our political leaders are floating on clouds of ersatz dialogue. Each is distracted by passionate soul-searching within his party. Consider first Mr Major's fantasy-game. The prime minister knows that Britain has no choice but to participate in whatever is going on among its continental neighbours. He has said so. His emphasis, however, varies. This is nothing new. From time to time the UK government is overcome by delusions of grandeur, as it was over the European Coal and Steel Community, which it failed to join in 1950, or the drafting of the Treaty of Rome, from which it stayed aloof in 1955.

Such self-glorification has been punctuated by panic attempts to opt in, or desperate scrabbles not to be left out. These began in 1961, but the pattern persisted. As prime minister in 1970-74 the then Mr Edward Heath led us into the "common market"; his Labour successor nearly took us out. When she was prime minister in 1979-90 Lady Thatcher thundered "no no no no" from every platform, but in the back room, confronted by the Single European Act and possessed of a praiseworthy sense of realpolitik, she whispered "yes yes yes yes".

This well-known post-1945 history of opportunities botched and subsequent patchups is rehearsed in the current issue of The Political Quarterly. None of the blather of the past week changes the continuing story. Last Thursday's cabinet decision to bang the nationalist drum may be a portent of the near future. The PQ, edited by Messrs Colin Crouch and David Marquand, comments that

"the easiest way for the government to escape from its predicament is to call a snap election before the intergovernmental conference, and to fight it on an anti-federalist ticket - suitably tinged with a genteel xenophobia - around which all but the bitterest Eurosceptics in the Conservative party could unite". This thought has plainly occurred to the opposition. The IGC is due to start next year. Labour is already taking pre-emptive action. Mr Robin Cook said yesterday: "Europe must be a community of free member states." For good measure, the shadow foreign secretary added: "Labour rejects the concept of a European superstate." This makes as much sense as it does when the prime minister says it. The European Union is and will remain a permanent conference of independent nations. No united states of Europe is in sight. "Conservatives are against the consumption of babies for breakfast," Mr Major might proclaim. "Us too," says Mr Blair.

Yesterday's article on this page by Lord Howe should come as a bucket of cold water over populist heads. The former Tory chancellor and foreign secretary foresees and welcomes greater cohesion in an ever-closer union than some of us do, but his basic proposition, that "if we make the EU unworkable", France and Germany "will find other solutions that exclude us", cannot

be gainsaid. The corollary should be spelt out. Whether or not we drag our heels in 1996, or if ever a single currency is established, sooner or later we will be begging for membership of the highest circle of the EU then extant. The empire is gone, Pace Mr Malcolm Rifkind, the UK is not the 51st state of the US. Stand alone? Britain cannot be Switzerland. It is too large to be Norway. There is only Europe.

Who is saying this with unqualified clarity today? Not Mr Michael Heseltine, who wrote a book on it. Not yet Mr Kenneth Clarke. Not even Mr Douglas Hurd. The industry secretary, the chancellor and the foreign secretary all know better. Yesterday Mr Hurd's characteristically diplomatic remarks indicated his adherence to the idea of Britain's place at the centre of European affairs. Yet he, along with other European-inclined members of the cabinet, has apparently acquiesced in the prime minister's implicit contract with the Euro-sceptics.

The most extreme version of that unholy pact was expounded by Mr Michael Portillo over the weekend. The British cabinet, it seems, threatens a machine-gun spray of vetoes at the IGC, not looking to see who or what might be upset, not waiting to ascertain what subtle negotiation might achieve, just parroting the pre-election soundbite: "Freeze, Europe. One move and we'll blast you."

When he is not working out how to follow that, Mr Blair is engaged in a surrealist exercise of his own. Clause 4 promises the nationalisation of enterprise. It is what makes Labour socialist, in the Marxist sense. As such, it is redundant, faded ink on yellowing paper. A Labour government would not take one more brick into state ownership with Clause 4 intact, nor one less without it. Yet Mr Blair is touring the country to persuade party members to vote for a replacement passage, something that promises fairness, social justice and, with luck, adherence to a dynamic market economy.

In a sane world he would have no trouble winning the vote. The Labour party being what it is, some of its members have labelled their leader a class traitor. Others use derogatory terms to describe him. The argument over the dratted clause has become a dispute over whether drops of Marxism remain in Labour's blood. It is a purification ritual, probably necessary but certainly unrelated to the immediate concerns of voters. It is a party matter. In this it echoes the Conservative agony over Europe. There the resemblance ends. Mr Major is skating backwards at the behest of his party's sceptics. Mr Blair is confronting his own potential rebels head-on. The difference is instructive.


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