Unmentionables

Hugo Young

  • Europe: The Europe We Need by Leon Brittan
    Hamish Hamilton, 248 pp, £17.99, March 1994, ISBN 0 241 00249 4

Does Britain belong to Europe? Incredibly, this question dominated the politics of 1993. It had done the same in 1962, the year the Macmillan Government sought terms for entry into the Community; in 1972, when the Heath Government negotiated British membership; and in 1975, when the Wilson Government held a referendum. The referendum, in which 64 per cent of the voters said Yes, was supposed to determine the question, but long before 1993 the evidence accumulated that it had not entirely done so. For 11 years, Britain was led by a prime minister who took Britain further into Europe, by pressing for passage of the Single European Act, but simultaneously conducted a relentless propaganda campaign against ‘Europe’ and all its works. This was perhaps the main reason why the apparently settled verdict of 1975 proved to be the beginning not the end of an argument, and why the 1993 version of the argument was more virulent than any of its predecessors.

The Parliamentary debate on the treaty of Maastricht did not set the nation ablaze. Perhaps, from the public’s point of view, the referendum did indeed settle the matter, and should have left the country free to direct its concerns to the many domestic issues where reform was a more urgent, and certainly more realisable, necessity. But Europe is an issue that has always engaged the passions of the political élite with far greater intensity than those of the masses. On the one side are ministers and administrators whose lives are dominated by the European connection, and who take it for granted. On the other are political factions that still believe the British birthright, and not least their own role as the public men and women of Britain, has been sold for a mess of Brussels pottage. In 1993, both sides of the British élite, but especially the promoters of dissent, were proud of the intensity of its discussions. It thought it was more engaged and responsible, more willing to grapple with the challenge Europe poses to modern ideas of national identity, than any of its counterparts elsewhere on the Continent. The élite is proud to say, moreover, that the argument is not over. The Prime Minister secured ratification of his treaty; but in 1996 an inter-governmental conference of the European Union is due to be held which will once again raise the big questions implicit in further integration of the nation-states. The British stand ready, with their sceptical wisdom, to control the agenda, as they believe, more effectively than at any time since joining the Community on 1 January 1973.

This account of what happened last year, although the conventional wisdom among many participants, was misleading. The debate was in fact hobbled from the start by tactical considerations. All three party leaderships wished to see Maastricht ratified, which already made for a less than full-blooded or comprehensible argument. But all three were also engaged in dissembling as to their true intentions, and manoeuvring to disguise rather than emphasise how horrified they would be if ratification failed: a posture that many of the public, if not already turned off by the abstruseness of the treaty’s provisions, found terminally perplexing. So the argument was left in the hands of dissidents, mostly in the Tory Party, who were interested as much in using Maastricht as a weapon with which to beat the past as they were in deciphering its impact on the future. The great Maastricht debate was mainly prosecuted by politicians who, from Lady Thatcher downwards, believed it was the moment to fix a Maginot line beyond which the previous momentum for integration would not pass. The terms of the argument they made therefore tended to be inward-looking and, above all, anachronistic. They worried more than anything about British sovereignty, and were prepared to overlook the fact that the greatest limitations on it had already been conceded. Maastricht, a much lesser invasion of sovereignty than the Single European Act, stood proxy for the debate that conspicuously did not take place in the Eighties. The Parliamentary discussion concerned Britain more than Europe. Far from addressing the future dynamic of the Union, it rested on the premise that there would be no further movement, unless it was backwards towards dis-integration: a premise which ministers, in their anxiety not to provoke more trouble than they needed to, did not always do everything to resist.

Given this recent history, the reader who picks up Sir Leon Brittan’s book is in for a startling experience. Sir Leon is, after all, a Conservative politician. Perhaps he has ambitions to return to Parliament – although as the EU’s Gatt negotiator and foreign trade panjandrum he presently counts for more than most members of the British Cabinet. He certainly wants to remain a force in Tory affairs. But the main effect of his book is to show the profound unreality of most of the Maastricht debate in this country. He writes about a Europe that actually exists, implicitly offering the reminder that Britain in 1993 was often concerned with a Europe that might be wished out of existence. As a vice-president of the European Commission, of course, he breathes the air of integration, and Euro-detail is his meat and drink. Give him the minutiae of a Brussels directive on cardboard packaging, and he won’t run screaming from the table. At present, he’s a serious candidate to succeed Jacques Declors in the presidency of the Commission, a post unlikely to go to any Briton but one for which this testament is a plausible manifesto. After a year spent debating how many angels it takes to dance on the grave of British sovereignty, it is salutary to discover a British politician not ashamed to show his persuasive conviction that that is not the issue.

This is a Eurocentric book. In the style appropriate to his new ambition, Sir Leon studiously discards his national origins. In virtually his only reference to them, they appear as an almost apologetic afterthought. Musing on whether he is a European or an internationalist at heart, he concludes that ‘there is no inherent contradiction in being European and international, and in my case British for that matter.’ Part of his vision of Europe, on the other hand, does accord with British Conservative orthodoxy. Brittan believes in a Europe emphatically of the Right. He thinks that economic convergence on the terms laid down by the Bundesbank before Maastricht will be unambiguously good for all European economies, irrespective of the future of monetary union. The criterion for government deficit, that it should not exceed 3 per cent of gross domestic product, he regards as a prudent discipline regardless of a country’s circumstances or the state of the economic cycle. As with all good Tories, deflation and unemployment bother him less than the spectre of inflation. He cannot see why the Netherlands, despite having the only currency that has kept its tight parity with the Deutschmark, and enjoying an unshakable level of market confidence, should not be made to reduce its deficit even though this will involve a high political and economic cost. He would allow some short-term breaches, but in essence he seems to think that what’s good for Germany will be good for everyone else as well.

Brittan is also as scathing as any Tory about the social cost of Europe. His analysis of the rigidities of the social regime, and the competitive disadvantage Europe consequently suffers with both Asia and the US, could have been written into the Conservative manifesto for the European election, and probably will be. He concedes that ‘when it comes to the rights of workers, the unemployed, pregnant mothers, adolescents and the elderly, Europe’s diversity is at its greatest.’ His severity in this field may put him most at odds with his potential electors for the presidency. Eleven out of 12 EU members, he reports – guess the odd one out – are seeking social compacts with their trade unions, and there is a powerful dynamic behind the move to make these compacts steadily more uniform. Brittan is against this, both in general and in particular. He rejects the uniformity model, and with it the common North European claim that national variants on pay and conditions impede fair competition. ‘If Portugal, Greece, southern Italy and parts of Spain, not to mention Ireland and much of Britain, are to revive their economies,’ he writes, ‘they must be allowed to exploit what for some of them may be their only comparative advantage: lower costs and cheaper labour.’ But he also counsels Europe to think again about what, in this competitive age, can be afforded. Although few politicians are honest enough to say so, and Sir Leon is seldom here one of them, the pervasive tension in Europe will soon be between sweat-shop jobs and no jobs at all. He sees EU social legislation that tries to safeguard workers against temporary contracts and part-time jobs as counter-productive – even if it makes little change in working practices. ‘Even without teeth it can still prey on the minds of company strategists.’ This has been the stuff of a thousand Tory speeches.

But here the orthodoxies end. One of the great unmentionables in Government circles is the prospect of a two-speed Europe, in which Britain would be consigned to the slow lane. John Major and Douglas Hurd believe Britain will be in control of the 1996 agenda, and dismiss the possibility that others any longer wish to move faster towards integration than they do. Therefore, they contend, the old model of fast and slow tracks is out of date. Brittan entirely disagrees. Maastricht, from which Major secured exemptions that already involve different speeds, sets a pattern. As Brittan points out, it has always been the case that some members have fused ahead of others; this process is now likely to accelerate. Nor is it to be regarded with horror. It would have found favour with Jean Monnet and other founding fathers. It is, in truth, inevitable, although ‘it must not become a permanent two-tier Europe with an unbridgeable gap between one tier and the other.’ Opting out is here to stay, and Europe will learn to live with it. As a new-model European, Sir Leon does not descend into contemplating what effect this might have on the insularities of Britain or the British claim about the irrelevance of speeds and the non-existence of tiers. But his analysis begins to isolate one trend about which the British presentation is habitually less than straightforward.

This is only the beginning of his personal divergence from Tory orthodoxy. Although opposed to one British hate-object, the Social Chapter, he is strongly in favour of another, economic and monetary union, or EMU. To anyone who has learned to live within the confines of the British debate, this is an arresting sentiment. There are ministers who also favour EMU: Michael Heseltine and Kenneth Clarke both admitted as much last November, and in that small part of his heart which can afford to rise above political calculation, Major is probably an EMU man as well, when the time is ripe, as they all say. The trouble is that in modern Tory dialogue this opinion can be conveyed only by samizdat publication. Even return to the ERM is a course it would be unwise for an ambitious politician to advise within two hundred miles of a party conference. Although Tory Europhobes have yet to succeed in their campaign to extract promises of eternal fidelity to an unmanaged currency, the serious prospect of EMU as an expedient that will once again demand a British response is seldom canvassed. Partly because of the disaster of September 1992, nobody dares to tell us that the case for EMU is not dead.

Sir Leon is strident in his reminders. He calls it ‘a serious economic and political misjudgment’ to assume that the currency crises of 1992 and 1993 mean Europe will never again want a currency union. There’s no reason, moreover, why the Maastricht version should no longer be valid. He thinks the crises were ‘a blessing in disguise’ because they will have prompted governments to try harder next time to get their economies aligned more closely. Nor is this merely a remote possibility. The original target date of 1997, he concedes, may be unrealistic, but 1999 could easily seem feasible for the inner core of countries that wanted it. He now thinks it won’t come about as a direct result of exchange-rate stability – that is, as a natural evolution from ERM to EMU – but following a Europe-wide agreement on an inflation target, combined with the burgeoning awareness of the huge costs that can be saved in a single market by having a single currency. There will need to be currency agreements, he says, within the newly-stretched ERM bands. But currencies themselves will be the last not the first element of the package that becomes, at last, economic and monetary union.

This discussion has become virtually impossible to hold at the higher levels of domestic British politics. The Labour Party is scarcely better than the Tories at addressing the details of the European project with any degree of honesty. We know Labour is in favour of the social chapter, but don’t know how seriously they’ve thought about paying for it. We can be pretty sure that John Smith, and the Labour mainstream generally, takes a less hysterical view about the loss of sovereignty than even Douglas Hurd finds it prudent to disclose before a Tory audience. The Liberal Democrats, being shamelessly federal, have fewer problems, though they’ve also faced, as yet, fewer hard questions from the affronted heartland of the British national psyche. All in all, the product of the thirty-plus years since the argument began in earnest seems to be a discussion more meagre in its candour and more deluded in its imaginings than ever before.

Sir Leon does not cover all corners of the European debate with equal facility. He is better on competition policy, which he knows at first hand, than on defence and foreign policy. He can make no better a case than anyone else for the argumentative confusion that has passed for Europe’s policy towards former Yugoslavia. But he does engage with the institutional problems that many Commission bureaucrats have found almost equally intractable. Enlargement of the Union should, he suggests, be accompanied by a revision of the majority voting rules, and will see the introduction of the guillotine as the only way to control debates in the Council of Ministers. The democratic deficit should he rectified not through a strengthened European Parliament but through a committee of national parliaments, empowered to adjudicate on matters of subsidiarity, legality and the hazy frontiers between national and continental sovereignty. This is congruent with the usual Tory hatred of Strasbourg. On the other hand, Sir Leon’s model of the new Europe, 16 or 20 strong, cannot avoid assigning large new duties to the body which tends to be the ultimate litmus test of Euro-altitudes: the Court of Justice. Those who detest the European project regard the Court as the fount of federalising iniquity; Leon Brittan burdens it, perhaps impossibly, with the tasks of something like a Supreme Court.

It is possible that the premise of this book will be undone by events. There are serious observers both in Britain and Europe who believe the integrationist impulse is waning fast. Quite a lot will depend on the German elections on 16 October, the most important date in the European calendar this year. A defeat for Helmut Kohl could prove to be a victory for the kind of nationalistic, or alternatively disengaged, Germany against which much of his career has been directed, with serious consequences for the integrationist movement. It is in any case true that the rage of ‘subsidiarity’, which means the withdrawal of Brussels from functions that can be performed more acceptably at national level, is putting a different slant on the role of the Union. Not even the most rabidly European British ministers, moreover, believe that foreign and security policy will be yielded in their lifetime to a Europe-wide government operating by majority vote. There are limits to Europeanism, and they are narrower than they were – narrower even than they were when Margaret Thatcher thought she was dictating them.

Nonetheless, as Brittan suggests, when the economic malaise of Europe lifts, it is certain that some attempts at further integration will be made. This will not be the work of power-hungry Brussels bureaucrats but of national politicians who have their own interest in pursuing it, and are prepared to look at it through a truer lens than the narrow distorting prism of national sovereignty. In half of their mind, British politicians know this. They see the reappearance of a miserably familiar pattern: Continental move, preceded by British resistance, accompanied by British agonising, followed by British desire not to be left out, concluded by sour, reluctant and belated British acquiescence. In the other half, they now persuade themselves it will not happen, and therefore decline to address the possibilities. Sir Leon’s book comes from the real world, to shatter the illusions of his friends.