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One of John Major’s early remarks when he became prime minister in November 1990 was that he wanted Britain to be at the heart of Europe. It says something for the often fractious nature of Britain’s relations with its European Community partners that this was regarded as a novel, even a controversial, statement. The comment was taken to be an implied criticism of his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, whose dealings with other EC leaders had been more distant when they were not positively stormy.
It has been a beneficial change of tone. The new approach enabled Major to win some concessions from his fellow heads of government in negotiating the Maastricht Treaty on European Union last December—in particular, the right to opt out of the social chapter and to decide later whether to join a single European currency. It has equipped him to play a pivotal role now in the most serious internal crisis that the EC has faced for at least a quarter century.
When Danish voters rejected the Maastricht Treaty in a referendum at the beginning of June they presented the Community with both a legal dilemma and a moral challenge. The Maastricht agreement provides for a number of amendments to the EC’S original Treaty of Rome, all of which require the unanimous endorsement of the 12 member states. If the Danes cannot be persuaded to change their minds, Maastricht in its present form is dead.
To get around this legal roadblock there have been some ominous rumblings that Denmark might be pressed to withdraw from the Community. Or, it has been suggested, the other 11 countries might sign another agreement, quite separate from the Treaty of Rome, to implement Maastricht. Neither stratagem would be a satisfactory solution to the dilemma.
Because the legal position has become so messy, people throughout the EC have begun to think more carefully about what sort of Europe they want. Before the Danes voted, nobody doubted that Maastricht would be ratified. Britain was the only other country until then where there had been a serious debate on the treaty’s implications. Now the critics are raising their voices in a number of member states. The wisdom of Maastricht can no longer be assumed. Hearts and minds have to be won for the treaty, or something different must be found.
There is also the problem of Yugoslavia. Throughout the era of Soviet domination of eastern Europe, the ethnic, national and religious rivalries that have plagued the region for centuries were kept firmly under control. Once that grip was removed there was always the danger that these ancient feuds would resurface. That they should do so first in Yugoslavia is ironic because this was a country that escaped from Stalin’s grasp nearly fifty years ago. But what has been happening there is symbolic both of the perils that lurk throughout eastern Europe and of the challenge they present for western Europe. The EC bears no responsibility for the onset of the catastrophe unfolding on Europe’s rim. But because the Community appears so powerful, it is expected to find an answer to that crisis on its periphery.
It falls to John Major to play the principal part in attempting to steer the Community through these dangerous waters. For the second half of this year it is Britain’s turn to be president of the Council; the British prime minister has a double responsibility. He has the chairman’s duty to seek harmony, to guide all the members around the legal and political rocks: there must be no shipwreck on his watch. But he is also the heir to a distinctive British approach to the future of Europe.
The sharp difference of Major’s style and tactics have obscured the similarity in the substance of the Major and Thatcher European policies. The harshness of Thatcher’s rhetoric made it appear that she differed from her predecessors more than she really did. There certainly has not been consistency in the British attitude toward Europe over the past half century. But there have been certain fundamental themes that have kept reappearing, clothed at different times in different detailed policies, since Winston Churchill first sparked the imagination with his call upon a devastated Europe to unite.
Churchill began to alert public opinion to the problems of postwar Europe well before the end of World War II was in sight. He had in mind a Council of Europe that would operate under the United Nations "with all the strongest forces concerned woven into its texture, with a High Court to adjust disputes and with forces, armed forces, national or international or both, held ready to impose these decisions." He was evidently thinking in rather generalized terms of an elaborate exercise in regional peacekeeping.
Then, after he was thrown out of office in 1945, there came the loud trumpet blasts for the cause of a united Europe in a series of speeches, first in Zurich in 1946, then in London the following year when launching the United Europe Movement and finally at The Hague in 1948. The scorching, compelling power of Churchill’s rhetoric had a dramatic impact on governments and peoples throughout Western Europe. The Council of Europe was established at his instigation in 1949 as an assembly for dialogue among parliamentarians. The process of developing European unity had begun. Never since then has Britain been so clearly at the heart of Europe.
Yet for all their inspirational qualities Churchill’s speeches on Europe shared one characteristic with the plays of Shakespeare: it is possible to find in them a text for all seasons. On Europe Churchill used words expansively to convey a sentiment without too much regard for their precise meaning. Not infrequently, for example, he referred to his aspiration for "a United States of Europe." This phrase is used today to point toward a tightly integrated Community, based upon the example of the most powerful nation state in the world. Yet that was not what Churchill had in mind; on other occasions he displayed suspicion of supranational institutions.
Churchill seemed uncharacteristically relaxed in his choice of words on Europe because he was concerned above all to engender a spirit rather than to construct a system. His principal objective was to bring about an ethos of reconciliation, especially between France and Germany. "There must be an end to retribution," he proclaimed during his 1946 speech at Zurich University. "The first step in the recreation of the European family must be a partnership between France and Germany."
Churchill did not specify how this partnership should be formed. Time and again he warned against detailed plans and blueprints. "It would not be wise in this critical time," he declared at The Hague, "to be drawn into labored attempts to draw rigid structures of constitutions." In this he provided a direct contrast to Jean Monnet, the French businessman and administrator who was the godfather of the European Community.
Monnet believed just as deeply in reconciliation between the wartime foes, but his method was to create supranational economic institutions for a political purpose. Locking European economies together in this way would serve a double purpose: another war between Germany and France would become impossible, and Western Europe would become once more a power in the world.
This difference between the pragmatic Englishman and the programmatic Frenchman illustrates a fundamental difference in approach that has bedeviled relations between Britain and its partners. For those of the Monnet school, which has included most member governments for most of the time, the establishment of new structures for ever closer integration is an end in itself. This is what building the new Europe is all about: welding the nation states of the old Europe into a new economic and political entity.
Churchill offered a different vision. It was of a Europe moving toward closer economic, military and political unity, but with the precise arrangements to be determined by the flow of history. It was not to be a narrow, restricted Europe. "We aim at the eventual participation," he declared at The Hague, "of all European peoples whose society and way of life, making all allowances for the different points of view in various countries, are not in disaccord with a Charter of Human Rights and with the sincere expression of free democracy." Nor was it to be an exclusive or inward-looking Europe. "We in Britain must move in harmony with our great partners in the Commonwealth," he said in that same speech. Equally, he would have been the last person to suggest that Britain should modify its relationship with the United States in order to devote itself to Europe.
This strategy—broad, relaxed and generous—provided scope for flexibility, but also for misunderstanding. In 1950, while the British Conservatives under Churchill were still in opposition, two far-reaching European initiatives were launched. Robert Schuman, the French foreign minister, proposed the pooling of coal and steel production. René Pleven, the French prime minister, presented a plan for a European army.
The European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), comprising France, West Germany, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg, became the first step in the process of European economic integration. There could have been no more dramatic beginning than to merge the two basic industries which were essential for conducting war. The scheme for a European Defence Community (EDC) was rejected by the French National Assembly in 1954, but it had dominated the European debate in the early 1950s.
The British Labour government did not join either project. It declined an invitation to take part in initial exploratory discussions on the ECSC with France and Germany because of a difference that may seem trivial but was symptomatic of a much deeper divergence. The French government wanted acceptance of the plan in principle before the details were worked out. The British refused to commit themselves without knowing what the full project would entail.
It was the kind of disagreement that has emerged time and again in subsequent years. The French in particular, but Britain’s other European partners as well, want the reassurance of knowing that their companions have signed up for the whole voyage. This shows that everyone is together in spirit, even if there may be difficulties along the way.
The British, by contrast, are mistrustful of windy general declarations. They take promises more literally, so they want to be careful what they are signing. It is no accident that Britain has caused more difficulty than anyone else over the years about accepting what seem to their partners to be innocuous statements of intent while, on the other hand, having one of the best records in implementing EC legislation once it has been passed in Brussels.
Churchill criticized the Labour government for failing to take part in the preparatory talks, saying that Britain could have claimed the right to withdraw later if it did not like the outcome. On the European army he was even more positive, telling the Council of Europe that "we should make a gesture of practical and constructive guidance by declaring ourselves in favor of the immediate creation of a European army under a unified command, and in which we should bear a worthy and honorable part."
Yet when Churchill became prime minister again in 1951 Britain did not join either project. Britain’s exclusion from the process of European integration could no longer be attributed simply to having a Labour government. Thereafter Britain was clearly on the periphery, politically as well as geographically. To some of Churchill’s own supporters and to many in other European countries it came as a grave disappointment, almost a betrayal, that the great champion of European unity in opposition was not prepared to take action when he was back in office.
Was it, as Harold Macmillan implied in his memoirs, that Churchill just had other things on his mind? That was no doubt part of it. He had resumed the leadership of a country in grave economic difficulties, and he was preoccupied with the threat of nuclear warfare. His foreign secretary, Anthony Eden, and the Foreign Office at that time did not share his European enthusiasm. They would not have prompted Churchill to remember his earlier words, and he might have hesitated to push them in a direction where he knew they did not want to go.
But there were other reasons as well. Churchill had never committed himself to a precise scheme in either case, and he did not like the way in which the original ideas had been developed. In his June 1950 speech to the House of Commons, criticizing the British government for failing to take part in the original negotiations on the ECSC, he had criticized the French for making precise stipulations before being ready to discuss, and he had commented sourly on "the usual jargon about ‘the infrastructure of a supranational authority’." That was not how he wanted Europe to develop.
This was why he did not take Britain into the EDC. It was not just a lapse of memory, as he explained to the House of Commons in July 1954:
I am sometimes reproached with having led France to expect that Britain would be a full member of the European Defence Community. When in 1950 I proposed at Strasbourg the creation of a European army, I had in mind—and it is clear from my speech—the formation of a long-term grand alliance under which national armies would operate under a unified allied command. The policy of the alliance would, I assumed, be decided jointly by the governments of the participating countries. My conception involved no supranational institutions, and I saw no difficulty in Britain playing a full part in a scheme of that kind. However, the French approached this question from a constitutional, rather than a purely military, point of view. The result was that when they and the other five continental nations worked out a detailed scheme, it took the form of a complete merger of national forces under federal supranational control.
So by the mid-1950s a gulf had developed between even the pro-Europeans in Britain and the core movement for European unity. The same six countries that had formed the ECSC and that had tried and failed to set up the EDC were shortly to create the Common Market. In each case there was to be a supranational operating arm subject to the control of a council of ministers from the member governments.
In Britain there were many, far more than there are today, who were either hostile or at best tepid toward the whole idea of European entanglements in peacetime. But even those who were genuinely enthusiastic were often opposed to the supranational preferences of the Six. Many Britons wanted Europe to bury the old animosities, to play a more effective role in NATO, to recover its economic strength and to cooperate politically. But they were not seeking to create a new economic, political or military power in Western Europe. They were prepared to give up some national sovereignty, but only to the extent required for specific practical purposes. To most Britons the merging of sovereignty was not an end in itself.
It was quite consistent with this attitude that, after the collapse of the EDC, Britain should then play the leading role in the creation of the Western European Union (WEU) in 1955. One of the purposes of the EDC had been to provide a framework within which West Germany could be rearmed and brought into NATO without causing alarm to its neighbors. It was now agreed that Britain should join the Six in founding this new defense grouping with a promise to keep significant military forces on the continent. This was an unequivocal British commitment to Europe for a practical purpose, but without the supranational trappings to which Churchill and others had so objected.
The contrast between the failure of the EDC, for which Britain was widely blamed, and the successful negotiation of WEU illustrated the fundamental difference in attitude between Britain and the Six. It was not altogether surprising, therefore, that Britain was not represented when the Six met at the Sicilian town of Messina in 1955 to plan a customs union. Britain did send someone to sit on the preparatory committee that followed the Messina conference, but only a civil servant from the Board of Trade, not a person with the political clout of the other representatives.
The British delegation was in an invidious position, outranked around the conference table and unsupported from home. It had difficulty obtaining instructions from London, so it could hardly have played much of a part in the discussions. By then Anthony Eden, the unenthusiastic European, had succeeded Churchill. Macmillan, who had become foreign secretary, had been one of the most ardent of British Europeans in the postwar years. He would have had difficulty in overcoming Eden’s skepticism, but Macmillan himself was not enamored of the supranationalism that was evident once again in the proposed structure of the EC. In any case the general feeling in London was that nothing would come of this latest venture in European integration.
When this nonchalance proved to be unfounded, and the Six proceeded to sign the Treaty of Rome that created the Common Market in March 1957, British casualness turned to consternation. The mirage had become a threat. It was to counter the danger of exclusion from this new, powerful economic grouping that Britain now put forward a scheme for an industrial free trade area encompassing the whole of Western Europe, with the EC joining as a single unit.
After tortuous negotiations that proceeded for nearly two years the French government killed the project in November 1958, a few months after de Gaulle’s return to power. Yet, though the idea was stillborn, the plan indicated some of the enduring British preferences. The unifying process should be extended as widely as possible across Europe, not confined to a small group of the rich and powerful. Free trade is the economic goal that matters most; the concentration of power at the center is at best a necessary evil. (There would have been no supranational authority for the free trade area itself.)
When this scheme was rejected, the next option was to negotiate the European Free Trade Association (EFTA) with the Scandinavian countries, Austria, Switzerland and Portugal. This 1960 agreement was essentially a gathering of the outsiders. While it served to increase trade substantially among its members, Britain soon concluded that such an arrangement could be no more than second best.
The historic decision to apply for full EC membership came in the summer of 1961. There had been no mention of a possible application in the party manifesto when the Conservatives won the general election of 1959, merely a reference to EFTA and the continued aspiration for industrial free trade throughout Western Europe. But after long agonizing, the government decided that if Britain remained outside the Community it would be on the sidelines of European development.
In presenting the British case to the EC governments in Paris in October that year Edward Heath, the minister responsible for the negotiations, put it in terms of a historic conversion. Two months earlier Prime Minister Macmillan had been a little more circumspect in the House of Commons. He had put the emphasis very much upon the economic advantages of being part of a larger market: "The Treaty of Rome does not deal with defense. It does not deal with foreign policy." It was a strange irony that Macmillan should have referred specifically to these two fields of policy, because the Community’s incursion into these areas is one of the causes of controversy today. He then spoke more explicitly about the kind of Community into which he hoped to lead the British people:
I fully accept that there are some forces in Europe which would like a genuine federalist solution. . . . They would like Europe to turn itself into a sort of United States, but I believe this to be a completely false analogy. . . . Europe is too old, too diverse in tradition, language and history to find itself united by such means. . . . The alternative concept, the only practical concept, would be a confederation, a commonwealth, if honorable members would like to call it that—what I think General de Gaulle has called Europe des patries—which would retain the great traditions and the pride of individual nations while working together in clearly defined spheres for their common interest.
It is revealing that he should have used the words Europe des patries. The phrase is associated today with those who want a watered-down version of the Community—Euroskeptics lacking a true vision of Europe. Yet this was the concept of the Community given to the British people by the prime minister who first tried to take the country in.
Macmillan was not lacking in European enthusiasm. He probably had been Churchill’s closest colleague in the heady days of the early European conferences at The Hague and Strasbourg. It is just that right from the beginning there have been competing philosophies of the direction that European unity should take. But Macmillan was thwarted in his endeavor by the man whose phrase he borrowed. At a notorious press conference in Paris on January 14, 1963, de Gaulle made it clear that France would veto Britain’s application. His objections were fundamental. Britain was too insular, a maritime power, "linked through her exchanges, her markets, her supply lines to the most diverse and often the most distant countries."
The French leader was not referring here only to Britain’s Commonwealth connections. He was known to be particularly disturbed by the fear that Britain was too close to the United States, that Britain would be an American Trojan horse inside the EC—a suspicion that a number of Britain’s partners still retain.
It was to be almost another decade before Britain was able to join. Edward Heath, who was by then prime minister, was the most fervent European to lead any British government of either party. Nonetheless he had to be careful. The public opinion polls in the early 1970s suggested that most British people were opposed to membership.
Heath showed considerable diplomatic skill in the way that he maneuvered Britain into EC membership. Recognizing that there was no way to bypass a French veto, he managed to persuade de Gaulle’s successor, Georges Pompidou, of Britain’s European convictions. Yet he could not afford to sound any clarion call at home, for fear of provoking public opinion. The Conservative manifesto at the election of June 1970, which preceded the opening of negotiations, proclaimed with studied caution: "Our sole commitment is to negotiate; no more, no less."
So before Britain went into the Community in January 1973, the question was not an issue at a general election. Nor was there a referendum on it. There was no dramatic public debate. Heath made the reasonable but low-key pitch that the EC was too important to stay out of, and he made much of the economic benefits of membership. He certainly drew attention to the political considerations, but the British people were not given to understand that they would be embarking on the construction of a European superstate.
Paradoxically it was only after the defeat of the Heath government that British membership ceased to be controversial at home. The Labour government that came to power in March 1974 was, as so often, badly divided on Europe. Seven years earlier the then Labour prime minister, Harold Wilson, and his foreign secretary, George Brown, had traveled around the capitals of the Six in the attempt to have the French veto lifted, proclaiming that they would not take no for an answer. They had no choice.
When the Heath government had managed to take Britain in, the Labour Party was severely split, with most of its members of parliament voting against. Back in office most members of the Cabinet wanted to keep Britain in the Community, but they needed a pretext to cover their inconsistency and some device to prevent the party tearing itself apart. So there was an essentially cosmetic exercise in renegotiating the terms of British entry, and the new arrangements were put to a referendum of the British electorate.
The result was a majority of nearly two to one in favor of staying in. From that day on, the question of British membership has never been in serious contention. But the nature of the Community in which Britain has found a home has been and remains in dispute.
The issue was dramatized during Margaret Thatcher’s years in power by the pugnacious style in which she conducted her arguments with other EC leaders. There were tempestuous debates on Britain’s contribution to the Community budget, on the Common Agricultural Policy, on trade policy and on many other issues.
Her instincts were never those of a European. Her emotional rapport was with the United States, especially during the Reagan presidency. But while in her heart she might not have been too sorry to see Britain leave the Community, that has never been her policy. Her rhetoric may have encouraged the isolationists in Britain, but her world view never stopped at the English Channel. Her difficulty with the EC was that her horizons extended far beyond Europe.
In their very different ways she and John Major have been pursuing similar fundamental objectives, the themes that have been evident in the British approach to Europe over the past half century.
First, the EC should be as decentralized as possible. From the early days of the movement for European unity there has been a powerful school of thought whose primary purpose has been to build Europe into a power in its own right. This Europe was to be a bulwark against the Soviet Union at the worst of the Cold War; then, as the Cold War became less intense, it would be a distinctive voice between the Soviet Union and the United States; and now the Maastricht agreement is to make Europe strong enough to compete economically with the United States and Japan. Those who want to build Europe into a major power must wish it to develop into a tightly integrated unit, economically, politically and militarily. The mechanism becomes its own objective.
The British have always had a more modest conception of Europe. The purpose of European unity in their eyes has been to enable the peoples of Europe to live more harmoniously together and to enjoy greater prosperity and influence. Any measure of centralization needs to be justified on pragmatic grounds. For some years this attitude combined with traditional British insularity to keep Britain out of the ECSC and then the Common Market. Now it makes the British suspicious of the authority of Brussels—yet not totally hostile, it must be added, where a specific benefit can be seen.
In 1985 Margaret Thatcher agreed to an increase in majority voting in the Council of Ministers—which must expand the danger of any country having policies imposed upon it against its will—as part of the Single European Act. That legislation provided for the 1992 program, introducing the Single European Market with the elimination of trade barriers between all members of the Community. This is an enlargement of free trade, which Thatcher much approves of, and she was persuaded that more majority voting was required if the program was not going to be blocked by one country or another.
Other integrationist measures will be acceptable with a similar pragmatic justification. In general, though, there is a widespread British belief that there is too much interference from Brussels. The intense debate over the Maastricht Treaty revolves around this issue. The question in Britain today is not whether a decentralized Community is desirable, but whether Maastricht provides for that decentralization.
John Major has claimed that "the Maastricht Treaty marks the point at which, for the first time, we have begun to reverse that centralizing trend. We have moved decision-taking back towards the member states in areas where Community law need not and should not apply." He had in mind two of the decisions at Maastricht: that foreign and security policies, justice and immigration should be matters for intergovernmental cooperation outside the normal processes of the Community; and that in such areas as the environment, health, education and social policy the Community should act only if the objective cannot be achieved by the member states.
This is the principle of "subsidiarity" about which so much is heard throughout the EC these days. Major’s critics are deeply skeptical as to whether it will be implemented, and they point to the extension of the Community’s power to act in other fields. They believe that the treaty would inevitably impose more integration. But Major is seeking to interpret it, perhaps to reinterpret it, so as to move the EC in the opposite direction. The significance of this dispute is that both sides are claiming to be the better decentralizers.
Another consistent British theme has been that Europe should be organized on the basis of competition and free trade. This does not mean free trade just among the existing 12 members. It is one of the reasons why Britain is more eager than others to bring a number of new applicants into the Community as quickly as possible.
It is sometimes alleged that the cause of enlargement is pressed particularly hard by those who believe that it will prevent the EC from becoming too tightly integrated. There is some truth in this. In the long run the larger the Community, the more flexibility will have to be allowed. But the campaign for enlargement is more than a convenient tactical ploy.
There is a direct line of descent from Churchill’s desire to encompass the whole of Europe, to Macmillan’s fear of splitting Western Europe when the Common Market was founded, to Thatcher’s 1988 remark in her controversial Bruges speech that "We must never forget that east of the Iron Curtain peoples who once enjoyed a full share of European culture, freedom and identity have been cut off from their roots. We shall always look on Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as great European cities." Churchill spoke before the Common Market was contemplated, and Thatcher a year before the Berlin Wall came down and therefore before there was any possibility of any of the former Warsaw Pact countries becoming members.
Since then both Thatcher and Major have spoken of the possibility of the EC extending one day even to Russia. As with Churchill in earlier years such remarks should be taken not as specific proposals but as evidence of an attitude. Britain does not want a narrow Community.
When Britain first contemplated joining the Common Market, the question was how it could combine membership with its role in the Commonwealth. Then there came the tension between Britain’s place in Europe and its relationship with the United States. Britain’s view of its place in the world has changed over the years. It is becoming more European. More people travel there, work there and do business there. Europe matters far more than it did and the Commonwealth far less.
The relationship with the United States still matters. Whether it matters as much as Britain’s European connection is immaterial. The British interest lies in not having to choose. The new Europe that Britain needs is one where the member states can be European without being false to their history.
The search for Britain’s kind of Europe is in some ways more realistic and more relevant now than in the early days of the European movement when Churchill and his friends were in the vanguard, trying to reconcile France and Germany and to build up the strength of Western Europe.
Today the greatest threat to stability in western Europe lies in the threat of disorder in eastern Europe. The former Yugoslavia, with its growing death count and suffering, is a symptom of what could occur elsewhere in eastern Europe, which might in turn undermine security in the West.
To British eyes it is a matter of self-interest to extend a hand to the fledgling democracies to the east. Yet there is a paradox here. In the Gulf War Britain was one of those most ready to use force and was, indeed, palpably disappointed by the caution of most of its European partners. Now Britain is one of those most reluctant to become militarily engaged in Yugoslavia.
The apparent contradiction comes from a difference in strategic appreciation. The British view is that force can be justified (apart from cases of straightforward self-defense) in pursuit of specific objectives that can be achieved in a limited period of time. Those conditions applied in the gulf and in the Falklands.
In the case of Yugoslavia there is fear of being bogged down in a conflict that can be neither won nor lost, while being shot at from both sides. Therefore the British have placed the emphasis on negotiation as the prerequisite for peace. Whether this is a wise judgment or not, it does not indicate any lack of concern about eastern Europe.
Just as Britain wants an open and expanding Community in Europe, it no less wishes to avoid presenting a Fortress Europe to the rest of the world. It was John Major at Maastricht who insisted that industrial policy must still be settled by unanimous agreement among all member governments, thereby reducing the risk of a protectionist policy being foisted on the Community. It was Major again who tried, unavailingly this time, at the Munich summit of the Group of Seven leading industrial nations in July to persuade his Community partners to accept a further reduction in European agricultural subsidies, and so remove the obstacle in the way of the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade.
It is easier, however, for Britain to take this enlightened view because it has a much lower proportion of its work force in agriculture than either France or Germany. It would also stand to suffer particularly badly from any international trade war. Although Britain has shifted its pattern of trade much more to the Community, it still sells a higher proportion of its exports outside Europe than any other member.
The risks of a Fortress Europe now seem to have receded. But protectionist pressures remain, and the devil lies in the details: in the implementation of anti-dumping legislation, for example, and in laying down standards for goods. Agreement on the Uruguay Round would be a critical advance, but any chance of a French compromise will have to wait until after their Maastricht referendum on September 20.
French rejection of the treaty via referendum (its National Assembly has already voted in favor of the treaty) would mark a critical turning point for the Community. No other country is still planning to hold a referendum (the Irish have already had theirs and voted in favor), but doubts about the treaty are much in evidence elsewhere. In Germany there is strong resistance to giving up the Deutsche mark later this decade for a new European Community currency. In Britain the government will not find it easy to steer the ratification bill through its remaining stages in parliament.
Even if Maastricht is finally endorsed by all the member countries, the Danish vote has changed attitudes in many parts of the Community. The dangers of excessive centralization of the Community are being widely appreciated.
The present uncertainty gives John Major his opportunity. He is positioning himself so as to stand the best chance of guiding the EC in a more decentralized direction, irrespective of whether the treaty is passed or rejected. He proclaims himself the unflinching friend of Maastricht, the loyal member of the EC who has been steady under fire in a critical position. If the treaty is ratified he will deserve a full share of the credit. If it fails he cannot be blamed by his fellow European leaders (yet they will know that he will find it easy, even congenial, to take an alternative course). In either event he should have a reasonable claim to their trust and attention.
Where Thatcher sought to resist the EC, Major is seeking to remold it, quietly and unostentatiously, into a Community in which Britain can feel more comfortable. It is a delicate maneuver, and he may fail. He may find that he has accepted more centralization than he realizes. He may offend both sides: upsetting his supporters at home by appearing to love Maastricht too much, and angering the more zealous European enthusiasts by being too keen on decentralization. But he is a master of the political smokescreen. At the moment that is both his greatest strength and presents his greatest danger.