Common cause. The Tory party needs to rethink its ludicrous stance on Europe, writes Douglas Hurd

Not Quite the Diplomat: home truths about world affairs

Chris Patten <em>Allen Lane, the Penguin P

When I first heard about this book, I worried about pessimism. In a speech this summer, Chris Patten was so critical of almost everything done both by the Bush ad-ministration and by the governments of Europe that I wondered what might lie ahead. There is a place for the gifted pessimist, but it is not a role for a highly intelligent man in the prime of life, let alone for the chancellor of Oxford University. I need not have worried. Criticisms compressed tightly in a summer lecture are here dispersed and placed in context. The result is an exhilarating critique of where we stand today as an international community, culminating in a passionate exhortation to Europeans and Americans alike to return to the days of generous and imaginative partnership.

Patten describes the damage that Britain in general, and the Conservative Party in particular, does to itself by its attitude towards Europe. He traces the history in a way that would have been particu- larly apt if we were now heading for a referendum campaign. He deals in par- ticular with the accusation that our entry into the European Community was presented in a manner that disguised the sovereignty issue.

Patten recalls the forgotten figure of Sir Derek Walker-Smith, along with his fellow campaigners for a No vote in 1975. They pointed out, correctly, that by entering the EC we were subordinating British law to European law in matters covered by the 1975 treaty. Their argument for withdrawal was fully heard, and amply rejected in the popular vote. Successive British governments supported by successive British parliaments decided of their own free will that, in the modern world, we ought to act more closely together as Europeans. The most substantial of these moves was made by Margaret Thatcher when she negotiated the Single European Act in 1986.

Yet many brush aside these realities because they like disliking foreigners from the Continent. They can still, as Patten puts it, "hear the distant wail of air-raid sirens in the night and catch a whiff of the garlic breath of duplicity and cowardice". Some of our newspapers are full of this kind of stuff. Readers enjoy it, but they do not take it seriously, any more than they take newspapers in general as seriously as politicians suppose. Certainly in the 2001 election the public thought it weird of the Conservative Party to have focused on a subject that they do not believe deserves that much passion and energy. The one thing a British political party cannot afford to appear is weird. Xenophobia is best left to John Cleese.

Whatever the result of our Conservative leadership election, we must somehow escape from the present ludicrous position. We attack Blair on Europe, where he is broadly right. On Iraq, we paddle helplessly behind him as he paddles behind George W Bush. The official opposition is unable to criticise even the most heinous and now least defensible mistake that the Labour government has made.

The myth that we are threatened with a European superstate is still nourished in the Conservative cul-de-sac. Certainly there are Continental idealists who bitterly regret that it has faded away, but faded it has, as has been clear since Maastricht. The now defunct constitutional treaty was mocked because it began with references to the king of the Belgians and other heads of state. Yet that was precisely the point - the document was not the constitution of a new state, but a treaty between existing states defining their co-operation.

According to the myth, Commissioner Patten was an unelected bureaucrat rejoicing in his tyranny over the peoples of Europe. His book shows that, on the contrary, he was one of a team struggling to obtain, often in vain, the approval of elected heads of government for what they proposed. He is particularly critical of the lofty but second-rate way in which Jacques Chirac and Gerhard Schroder handled these matters. "President Chirac in particular sees diplomacy in terms of great men talking together in mirrored marbled halls. Cast detail to the winds; history is made by those who understand the grander picture and who can summarise its most salient features in a portentous platitude." Those of us who attended countless European councils as mere foreign ministers will recognise the picture.

Patten traces this trend's destructive outcome in the mishandling of the relationship with Vladimir Putin, who was allowed to get away with too much, and in the botched proposal to lift the European embargo on selling arms to China. The machinery can be improved but the failings are essentially of will and of common sense. With luck, new leaders are on the way.

These chapters on European foreign policy are rightly the core of the book. Patten does not believe that European diplomacy should be everywhere trying to do everything. He is critical, for example, about his own mission to North Korea. That was one continent too far. But when we look at the Balkans, at our dealings with Russia, at the Caucasus and Iran, indeed, the whole relationship between Europe and Islam, at the struggle to defeat terrorism, at the arguments about climate change and world trade - in all these matters, separate national policies are second best. We add to our seriousness and weight when we agree and act together as Europeans. We are slowly learning the lesson. The alternative is chatter and impotence.

Patten is a veteran in the encouraging debate about international democracy. He led those of us who argued, before the transfer of power in Hong Kong in 1997, that the British government should use its last years of rule there to encourage democratic progress despite harsh Chinese opposition. After this experience he sides with those Arabs who wrote the famous UN report in 2002, stressing the weaknesses that the Arab world suffers for lack of democratic government. Patten is discontented with the slow progress of the European-Mediterranean programme and with inconsistencies about human rights. The principle is right, however, and should provide one of the main foundations for effective partnership between the European Union and the United States.

The first and last chapters of the book are a passionate plea for such co-operation. Patten is haunted by a fear that neocon-servatives are pulling the United States away from its great postwar record as the main proponent of an international community. He is horrified by the black hole of Guantanamo Bay. He believes that Europe should be a capable partner, not a rival. For Europeans, this involves greater skill at agreeing common positions, higher and more intelligent defence spending, a greater effort against poverty, and the strengthening of the UN. These proposals are not plonked down as platitudes but set out in detail. "If Europe can only forget its prejudices and introverted preoccu-pations it should see the importance of working to help America to put things together in the right way." It would be hard to better this advice.

Lord Hurd was foreign secretary between 1989 and 1995