The state of mind of many of our leading politicians on Europe reminds me of the old satirical quatrain about the 1809 Walcheren campaign:
Great Chatham with his sabre drawn
Stood waiting for Sir Richard Strachan;
Sir Richard, longing to be at ’em,
Stood waiting for the Earl of Chatham
That was, and is, no way, to win a campaign – in 1809 or in 1999. Now the attentisme seems to be going on within the government. Gordon Brown was said to be unwilling to put his head above the parapet until Tony Blair did so first. But since Blair gave his firm lead in July, Brown appears to crouch lower. Instead we have the surprising but in itself welcome sight of Robin Cook’s beard popping up.
Let me urge Brown – a very good chancellor – not to be influenced by the Treasury’s European reluctance. The Treasury, which in general I much admire, is the only department in Whitehall that presumes to give its officials, as opposed to its ministers, a collective description. The Official Treasury was a term to which I became used during my period as chancellor (1967-70). “The Official Treasury thinks . . . ” I often read in the newspapers. But the Official Treasury has always, over 30 years or more, been wrong on Europe.
When I said in early 1970 that I wanted to make a strongly pro-European speech, they said that they could not think who could draft it – although there was one Third Secretary who had somewhat eccentric views on the subject. Then, when in 1977-78, as EC president, I had taken the initiative to set up the European Monetary System, and had the British prime minister, James Callaghan, tempted but hovering, a senior Treasury official at the Copenhagen summit in spring 1978 said to him: “But it’s very bold, prime minister. It’s very bold. And are you sure the Americans will like it?”
Leaving aside the helot status this implied for us, the Americans would have liked it. There have been few more pathetic sights in postwar international relations than that of successive British governments keeping themselves pure for an exclusive relationship with America, when what Washington wanted was for us to be as promiscuous as possible in Europe.
It is odd that the Treasury has suffered from this long-standing myopia on Europe, for it was my time as chancellor that provided me with my strongest pro-European experience. This came at meetings of the so-called G10, which was the core governing body of the IMF. The Six of the original community – we were then wholly outside – developed a habit of, at a difficult moment, asking for an adjournment so that they could go off and cabal on their own. These adjournments sometimes lasted for several hours. What they decided was of crucial importance to us. But we could not participate. All we could do was to hang about and chat to the much more relaxed Americans who could negotiate on equal terms with whatever emerged. We were a little boat liable to be pushed all over the place by the wash of a big tide.
The longer we stay out of a strengthening single currency, the more we recreate that position writ large. Nor can it seriously be argued that the foot-dragging, late-joining and the half-in, half-out position that has been pursued by nearly every British government of the past quarter-century has produced a satisfactory policy towards Europe. It has often come near to getting the worst of both worlds. There are only two coherent attitudes. One is to participate in all the main activities of the EU and to try to exercise as much influence as possible from inside. The other is to recognise that we are so incurably insular that we can never be other than a foot-dragging and constantly complaining member, and that it could be better, and certainly productive of less friction, to move towards an orderly and reasonably amicable withdrawal.
This would be a high-risk strategy – I think a very foolish one – and it could certainly not be done without securing a majority for withdrawal at a referendum. But I am very much in favour of making people face up to the logical consequences of their attitudes. That includes not only those who openly support withdrawal, but also all those whose stance is the unadmirable one of being “anxious to wound but afraid to strike”, dedicated to denigrating Europe in every speech and dedicated, too, to weakening our influence in Europe, while protesting that they want to stay in Europe.
A typical example is the current campaign of denigration against Romano Prodi, the European Commission president. The object is to destroy the whole concept of an independent commission and to turn it into an entirely subordinate secretariat of the Council of Ministers. That would be quite wrong. Apart from its management role, the commission has essential political functions.
The first is to inject into any important debate the interests of Europe as a whole. The member states are only too liable to squabble over their individual national interests. They have their own ambassadors in Brussels to do that. But commissioners, even though nominated by member states, have a wider duty and take an oath to act only in the general European interest. They do not always discharge it, but many do, and they tend to be the ones who carry the greatest influence. Second, the small states, of whom there are now ten in the EU, with another half-dozen in the queue for entry, see the commission as an essential protector of their interests. They have a natural fear of too much being settled over their heads by the big five.
The commission’s main fault is that it is six or seven members too big. The big countries must restrict themselves to one commissioner and the small ones must share.
Some other current criticisms I reject. There is no reason why a few of the untinged members of the old commission should not have been reappointed. The cull in the British cabinet in May 1940, when Churchill replaced Chamberlain and confidence needed to be restored, was far more limited than what has taken place in Brussels. Britain has in my view two thoroughly good commissioners in Neil Kinnock and Chris Patten – as good a combination as we have ever had. Nor do I accept as a valid criticism that this commission is too left-of-centre, given the modest shift to the right in the composition of the European Parliament. The commission does not and should not operate on a party-political basis.
My last point is about the referendum on Britain’s full participation in Europe, to which the government is committed. I strongly believe that it can be won. Opinion is fluid, and is no more hostile to Europe than it was only six months before the triumphant 1975 outcome.
But there are at least three conditions for victory. First, it must be a wholehearted cross-party campaign. Second, it cannot be won in a month. The government cannot hope to play out the rope indefinitely over the next general election, and then expect to pull it all back in a single burst. There must be a steady build-up of pro-European argument, starting now.
Third, it is no good leaving it to a business-led campaign. Businessmen are sometimes – but not always – good at business. But what they are practically never good at is the presentation of a politically persuasive case. We won the 1975 referendum with welcome business support, but essentially with a cross-party political leadership, and for that the government must take its full responsibility – both to avoid Tony Blair’s reputation being broken on the back of European equivocation, as that of so many of his predecessors have been, and to give Britain, for the first time, a full voice in Europe.
I desire that voice because I am a British patriot as well as a committed European of more than 40 years’ standing.
Excerpted from an address by Lord Jenkins to a Foreign Policy Centre and BBC World Service fringe meeting at the Liberal Democrat conference