Don’t be the Prime Minister who takes us out of EuropeJanuary 16th, 2013
A former Foreign Secretary imagines what advice Sir John Major might offer David Cameron
It is 20 years since the Maastricht treaty entered the House of Commons. On the eve of the Prime Minister’s Europe speech, one of his predecessors, John Major, shares some thoughts in a private letter . . . *
You are burdened by advice from many quarters as you prepare your Europe speech, but only Margaret and I have sat in your chair as Conservative Prime Minister, trying to square the circle of public opinion, Tory opinion and the national interest. I hope the following is helpful.
Despite our different backgrounds, you and I both rose in the party by taking positions that were sceptical but not hysterical about the EU. As you know, I did not think it was wise to leave the centre-right EPP grouping; my experience with Helmut Kohl was that the Germans need to feel included (even loved). But although I wanted to put Britain “at the heart of Europe”, I beat Douglas Hurd and Michael Heseltine for the leadership as the more sceptical candidate.
Of course two things have changed since my day. First, Europe has had the great success of enlargement and the great crisis of the euro. Second, the centre of gravity in our party has moved decisively in a Taleban direction when it comes to Europe (the analogy comes from one of our more sensible colleagues). I travel on business these days and, frankly, there is incredulity trailing in Boris’s wake at what he goes around saying. But it is mainstream in the party.
The problem is that both federalists and sceptics have taken strength from the travails of the euro. Federalists say, rightly, that for the eurozone to succeed it needs more federal government. You and George have been ahead of the game in supporting this. Sceptics say that it proves that the euro cannot work because it includes countries as different as Germany and Greece. I was never convinced that membership of the eurozone would of itself drive together these disparate economies and so it has proved.
But continental politicians and business people and, when push comes to shove, their own people, will not sacrifice the European enterprise. It is too deep in the psyche. This is sometimes dismissed as just being about the memory of the Second World War. That is important, but not the whole story. For eastern European countries it is about communism too. Just look at how Poland is at home in the EU.
I draw four lessons from my experience. The first is that some of our colleagues will never be satisfied until we have a referendum in which Britain votes to leave the EU. They actually care more about that than electing a Tory government. I waited far too long, but it was a liberation when I took them on. It is high risk to say that they are talking rubbish about Britain as Europe’s Singapore, but higher risk to humour them. The British people need to know that it costs a pound per person per week to be in the EU.
The second is that the rest of Europe does see the value of Britain being on the inside, and will go some way to accommodate us, but the absolute prerequisite is that they must believe we want the enterprise to succeed. They will not concede points to us because we hold a gun to their heads.
I already hear it said that Britain should “shut up or get out”. The veto- that-never-was in 2011 shows that they will create new arrangements to get round our veto if necessary. Far better to make proposals, for example, on subsidiarity that any country can opt into, and that we can take advantage of.
Third, while I faced an over-mighty Commission, and vetoed the selection of Jean-Luc Dehaene as its President, your problem is that the Commission is too weak. Countries outside the euro need the institutions of 27 countries, such as the European Commission and even the European Court of Justice, to guard their interests.
The truth is that countries such as Germany and Netherlands have more in common with us (and with Sweden and Poland) on economic issues than they do with some countries in the eurozone. We must not let the euro divide become the European divide — and we certainly must not allow the saving of the euro to kill the EU. Our gameplan should be to work with Angela Merkel to get in place a reform-minded commission and president of the European Council after November 2014.
Fourth, Margaret (quoting Clement Attlee) said in 1975 that referendums are the refuge of dictators and demagogues. She would not countenance one on the Single European Act. They are often a bolthole for leaders who feel weak — just look at Harold Wilson. Tony Blair’s commitment to a referendum on the European constitution in 2004 was more Bambi than Stalin.
I know that you don’t like “holding positions”. But sometimes they are necessary. I don’t think that the British would follow Liam Fox et al like lemmings off the cliff. But we cannot afford to spend the next four or five years in suspended animation, defined by our potential exit.
It was an article of faith for me that I would not be the Prime Minister who presided over Britain’s withdrawal from the EU. I hope that is the same for you.
* as imagined by David Miliband, the Labour MP for South Shields