The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1991Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Speech to European Democratic Union Conference – 12 September 1991

Below is the transcript of Mr Major’s speech to the European Democratic Union Conservative Party Leaders’ Conference, given on Thursday 12th September 1991.


Rt Hon John Major MP Thursday 12 September 1991 533/91

Extract from a speech by the Rt Hon John Major MP (Huntingdon), Leader of the Conservative Party and Prime Minister, to the European Democratic Union Conservative Party Leaders’ Conference:

Jacques Chirac and I met in London a few weeks ago. We talked, among other things, about the future of our continent. I valued that discussion. But neither of us could then foresee that within a matter of weeks, we would be witnesses to one of the most dramatic revolutions of the 20th Century.

I do not need to tell an audience in this city about the perils, as well as the opportunities, of revolution. This new revolution brings tremendous opportunities. But it brings uncertainties as well. And risks. They combine into a tremendous challenge, but it is not just to the people of the Soviet Union. It is also to the governments and peoples of the whole of Europe. It is about that challenge that I want to talk today.

For our parties of the centre right, the sudden and total collapse of Soviet Communism must be a special source of satisfaction. A dark and discredited ideology lies in ruins; rejected by the people it ensnared.

It was an ideology which promised power to the people; but it drained power from the people. It promised prosperity; but it brought poverty.

It did not cherish initiative; it did crush all personal economic aspiration. It replaced the inventiveness of the human imagination with the mumbo-jumbo of Marxist doctrine. It lived by tyranny, oppression and lies. And even the failed coup epitomised one of its most striking characteristics: enormous incompetence, even in the pursuit of its own misbegotten objectives.

Brian Mulroney recently told me a story of a conversation with President Gorbachev during his visit to Canada. President Gorbachev asked: what was the secret of Canada’s success as a wheat producer? What did Canada have that the Soviet Union did not? The answer, Brian Mulroney said, was quite simple: the Canadian farmer worked, not for the party nor for the state but for himself and his family. Like farmers in all our countries, he was prepared to work from first light until after dark knowing that he could improve his lot and pass on something worthwhile to future generations. That was Canada’s ‘secret’.

It is to the enormous credit of President Gorbachev that he saw clearly the flaws and injustices in the Soviet system. Ultimately, Soviet Communism was doomed to collapse because its foundations were rotten. But it was sustained by repression. It was President Gorbachev’s decision to move from repression to reform which opened the doors to freedom. They have opened first to the people of Eastern and Central Europe and now to the people of the Soviet Union. For this act alone, his place in history is secure.

Today, there is no longer a Communist Party in the Soviet Union. It is an irony that while the Communist Party is actually banned in Russia, Communist parties survive in most of our countries. So where are they now going to look for their ideological lead? To Cuba, just as Soviet troops are starting to withdraw? Or China?

I have just returned from China. I made that visit in the interests of the continued freedom and prosperity of Hong Kong. But I had another purpose too: to try to bring the influence of the free world to bear on the leaders of China, and to show the people of China that they are not forgotten by the West.

Even under the harsh and baleful influence of Communist rule, China is changing. The province of Canton is in a ferment of free enterprise. Take a helicopter and fly over Hong Kong and you will see that, beyond the line of the border with China, the lights of commerce and industry burn almost as brightly. The people there have some of the freedoms of the market place. They can benefit from their own hard work and enterprise. But they do not have personal liberty – the most precious freedom of all. It may take time, but I believe that political and personal freedom must inevitably follow the liberation of market forces.

In the meantime, we in the West must keep pushing at the door. I raised with Chinese leaders a large number of human rights cases. They did not dismiss them out of hand. They recognised that they had to listen and that they had to respond. They would prefer not to. But they did. A Hong Kong citizen who was in prison in China a week ago is back home in Hong Kong today.

I believe we must keep up the pressure on them. If every visitor from the West reminds China of their obligations, as a member of the United Nations, and a Permanent Member of the Security Council in particular, then that pressure will produce results.

The bastions of Communism have crumbled. But it still has its last outposts. No one can rule out desperate rearguard actions. But all the evidence is that we are now opening a new chapter. I am particularly delighted that our friends from the Baltic Republics are opening it with us. They have rejoined the European family – and not a moment too soon. Soon, with Britain’s support, they will become full members of the United Nations.

None of these changes are easy. Yugoslavia is a vivid example of a country teetering between self-determination and self-destruction. It is a reminder too of our responsibilities as democratic Europeans.

These are events of world significance. But, first and foremost, they affect our own continent of Europe.

At the end of the Second World War, Europe was split into two. The countries that emerged from war into freedom and democracy took two great steps to defend their liberties. The North Atlantic Treaty Organisation was formed. The European Community was launched. The fact that so many other European countries have since sought to join the Community, or to form associations with it, is the greatest signal of its success. Now the part of our continent that was denied the political and economic renaissance that the rest of us have enjoyed is emerging into freedom and democracy. For the rest of us that poses a unique responsibility. We cannot and must not turn our back on them.

We have the immediate, urgent duty to throw them a lifeline. We have already done this for the countries of Eastern and Central Europe. Each of our countries individually is helping. We in Britain have, through our ‘Know How’ fund, started to help the countries of Eastern and Central Europe develop the infrastructure of a modern economy. We have helped with privatisation in Poland; with the Stock Exchange in Budapest; with the banking sector in Czechoslovakia. Polish-speaking civil servants from London are today at work in Poland’s Ministry of Labour in Kracow.

Now we must do the same for the Soviet Union. Already, in July at the Group of Seven Summit, we agreed on:

(i) Special Association for the Soviet Union with the IMF and the World Bank;

(ii) Support for the Soviet Union and its republics from all the relevant international organisations;

(iii) Intensified technical assistance – especially in the fields of energy, the conversion of defence industries, food distribution, nuclear safety and transport.

(iv) Improved access to western markets.

The greatest single obstacle to the implementation of that plan was indecision within the Soviet Union. Would the Soviet Union go down the path of reform – genuine reform – or would the Soviet Union still try to combine partial political freedoms with economic centralism? We now know the answer to that question. The coup designed to halt reform has failed. It is now the catalyst to accelerate it. Only the Soviet Union and its republics can determine their future course. But we can help, both in the short term and for the future. First of all:

(i) We must assess their immediate needs urgently. They may need food aid to get them through this winter. If so, we and our partners will be generous with our help.

(ii) The Soviet Union and its republics will need an efficient infrastructure for food processing and distribution. In Britain we have assembled a team of our major food producers and distributors. They will go to the Soviet Union in a few days’ time to discover how they can help with food processing and distribution. Other countries of the Group of Seven are sending teams of their own. We have all agreed to pool our assessment by the end of this month.

(iii) We must speed up the implementation of existing food credits.

(iv) We must accelerate technical assistance and ‘Know How’ programmes.

(v) We must get the Soviet Union and the IMF into discussion so that the IMF can assess the Soviet economy and its requirements. I am pleased to say that a team from the IMF is already in the Soviet Union.

(vi) And we must accelerate the special association of the Soviet Union with the IMF that was agreed at the G7 Summit;

This will be a massive task. It is not a task for the Group of Seven alone, or the European Community alone. It is a task for all of us who enjoy prosperity and who have a stake in the Soviet Union’s new freedom.

That is the lifeline approach. But we must look also to the longer term. The people of the Soviet Union will have to decide what political system they want. When I was there ten days ago, one could feel the ground of history shifting beneath one’s feet. There was much uncertainty. Boris Yeltsin told me that the future shape of the Soviet Union would not necessarily be a federation or a confederation but something new and unique. Already, however, certain points were emerging. Many of them were confirmed at last week’s meeting of the Congress of Peoples’ Deputies, notably single armed forces for the Soviet Union; confirmation of the Soviet Union’s adherence to its international obligations and treaties; central control of nuclear weapons.

I pressed the Soviet leaders particularly on the issue of defence spending. For a country in dire economic straits, to spend 25 per cent of its resources on military expenditure is unsustainable and unacceptable. They must help themselves to be sure of our help. I have assurances from President Gorbachev, President Yeltsin and Prime Minister Silayev that defence spending is being cut – and will be cut further.

We cannot determine the future of the Soviet Union. But we can help – or we can hinder. We must offer them a new deal – and not a raw deal.

I would like to set out what I believe should be the basis of our relationship with the newest European democracy, or democracies.

We want them:

i) to create a genuinely democratic society;

ii) to develop a free market economy;

iii) to secure a stable and just system of government with protection for minorities;

iv) to play a constructive part in world affairs;

v) and to become an integral part of democratic Europe.

The idea of a common European home was once a slogan. Now it can become a reality.

We cannot allow one artificial division in Europe to be replaced by another. We in the European Community cannot say: ‘Here is our club.

We have made the rules. And we will make new rules regardless of your interests’.

Under the Treaty of Rome, any democratic European country can apply for membership of the Community. Eastern and Central European countries have made clear that they see full membership of the Community as their ultimate goal. I believe the Community should welcome them in as soon as they are ready politically and economically. We must be prepared to widen our horizons and widen our membership.

Already, at British initiative, we are, in the European Community, speeding progress towards Association Agreements for Czechoslovakia, Hungary and Poland. Of course, this involves some sacrifice. Association Agreements mean opening our markets to Eastern and Central European Countries. That means more competition – including in some agricultural products. But it is the right way ahead.

There is no purpose in giving countries aid and denying them trade access. Such policies would leave them on a drip feed of dependence for ever. It would be absurd and potentially dangerous, to preach the virtues of the free market but to practise old-fashioned protectionism. I think there will now be a real effort in the European Community to reach an agreement by the end of this month on agricultural access for Poland, Hungary and Czechoslovakia.

I have encouraged the Commission to be in urgent discussion with the newly independent Baltic Republics. They too will want a special relationship with the European Community. That may take the form of a Trade and Co-operation agreement leading, in due course, to an Association Agreement. In the longer run they may seek full membership. That possibility should be open to them too. And we should tell them so now.

I believe the European Community must hold out the hand of friendship and cooperation also to Russia and other republics of the Soviet Union. It is too early to say what form the relationship will take. But we should not close off options. It is no use saying the Community would not be the same if Russia became closely associated with it. It might have to change. But then we do not live in an unchanging world. The Community will have to change with it.

The Community’s strengths to date has come from its dynamism. We have not stood still. Nor can we now. That does not mean that we should neglect the development of the Community in its present form. But we must ensure that that development opens doors rather than closes them. We should be lowering barriers, not raising hurdles.

We Europeans must heed the aspirations and choices of 400 million European citizens. There is an unmistakable feeling that our continent is coming together. European union will not be led by politicians. It will be led by people. Politicians must not create barriers for half of Europe to step over.

In the West we already enjoy fundamental freedoms and human rights. Now we are extending their compass with new opportunities to work, trade and travel. We may have to work out new patterns of co-operation. The Soviet Union has the enormous task of adapting itself. We should be realistic. We should be practical. We should not push it in the direction of unrealisable objectives. Equally, we should not set artificial limits on its development. For years, the objective of a Single Market for the members of the EC was a far off dream. Now, it is becoming a reality. We should not close our mind to the prospect of the European Community embracing many of the newly emerging democracies. One day we shall surely do so.

That is one side of the openness I am talking about. But there is another kind of openness we in the Community should bear in mind as we work out the shape of the new European union. We must heed the way the world is moving – towards more decentralised, more accountable structures. In our talks on political union, we must enshrine a principle which captures the spirit of the age: it is the principle that decisions should always be taken at the lowest practicable level, close to the people they affect.

In security too, openness and trust must be our objectives. They are the new key words in the language – some would say jargon – of security. The disintegration of the Warsaw Pact presents new opportunities for confidence-building. The CFE Treaty offers us the prize of a proper verification regime. We should redouble our efforts to secure a ban on chemical weapons. We must strengthen the convention on biological warfare. And we must strive to set up a UN arms register to control the sales of conventional weapons to the Third World.

These opportunities are there to be taken. And why are they there? They are there because the Atlantic Alliance has held fast. It has provided the security which is the prerequisite for our immense economic progress. Like the European Community, it has provided an outstanding model of co-operation. Like the Community, it offers us a solid framework within which to manage the process of change.

It would be folly to suppose that the great changes of recent weeks justify neglect of our defence. There is too much uncertainty, too many nuclear weapons, too many countries with nuclear ambitions to allow complacency. Of course we Europeans should do more for our own defence. We have in the Western European Union the means to do it. Let us turn it into a real European pillar for the Atlantic Alliance. Let us use it to meet security threats from outside the NATO area.

Recent developments make the continued American and Canadian commitment to our continent more necessary, not less. It is not doctrine which holds NATO together, but shared interests and needs. As we develop our growing European defence identity, we must ensure that it is compatible with, not in conflict with, our mutual obligations as members of the North Atlantic Alliance.

Last, but not least, we should remember that trade is a peace maker – one of the most powerful and persuasive. Countries locked together in trade have mutual interests that prevent them being locked together in conflict.

Trade is the lifeblood of the international economy. When trade is relatively free, the international economy grows quickly and vigorously and all countries benefit. When trade is restricted, individual economies suffer, even those of the would-be beneficiaries of protectionism.
Free trade is vital for future world prosperity. It also provides vital underpinning for good political relations.

The GATT is at the heart of the world trading system. The Uruguay Round is now at a critical stage. The hopes of the developing world as much as the industrialised world rest on a successful outcome. At the G7 Summit in July, we all undertook to make a successful outcome this year a personal priority.

The EC is now the world’s largest trading entity. Together with the US and Japan it accounts for half the world’s trade. We have a central responsibility for maintaining a strong, open world trading system.

We are already dismantling barriers inside the Community. That should be part of a wider process of opening up world markets. We should vigorously resist pressures for a Fortress Europe. And we should guard against trading blocs based on Europe, the USA and the Pacific. That would be deeply damaging to world prosperity – and to world stability.

Openness in trade will be the test of our commitment to a real European union. For many of the countries represented here today, it will make the difference between prosperity and poverty. The Twelve should rise to the challenge, and that includes agriculture. The debate may be technical; but the underlying issues are fundamental. We talk of a new world order. It is fragile and flawed. But the idea is not unrealistic. If we were to fail to reach agreement on how the world is to trade and do business, we would deal a body blow to our hopes of a new world order. And the damage would be entirely self inflicted.

Ladies and gentlemen, the open society is on the march. Not just in Europe, but in every continent. Different countries will have their own ways of pursuing reform. But the lesson of the 20th Century is filtering through: freedom is the precondition of a happier world – and free markets are the precondition of a more prosperous world. It falls to us Europeans to spread that simple message, and live up to it ourselves. To fail would be unforgivable. To succeed will bring prizes beyond calculation. There is no better place to start than here on our own continent. And no better time to start than now.