The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997

1992Prime Minister (1990-1997)

Mr Major’s Article on Europe – 15 October 1992

Below is the text of Mr Major’s article on Europe, issued on 15th October 1992.


The futile argument about whether Britain is part of “Europe” or not has resumed here and there both in Britain and on the European mainland. It is a debate for political theorists and people living in ivory towers. It has nothing to do with historical, political of cultural reality.

What happened on the mainland has always had an immediate impact on Britain’s domestic politics, as well as its foreign policy. Britain too, paid the price of blood in the two wars which have torn Europe apart in this century. Britain’s contribution to European literature, philosophy, political thought and practice, is an essential part of the unique civilisation of our European continent.

It is absurd to talk as if Britain could detach itself voluntarily from the mainstream of European affairs. It is just as absurd to talk as if Britain could in some way be expelled from the European mainstream. Talk of a “mini-Europe” without the British is disreputable. Neither the Community nor any other institution can claim the “European” title if it is incapable of accommodating one of Europe’s most important countries. Britain is central to the affairs of Europe, and so it will remain. I have found no serious statesman on the European mainland who thinks differently.

Nevertheless Britain’s postwar relationship with the rest of Europe has not been entirely happy. After the war a group of far-sighted European statesmen set up the European Community in order to ensure that the Europeans would never again try to destroy one another and their common civilisation. This was a noble objective, and it has been achieved. The British stood aside from the process in the 1950s; a mistake for which we have been much criticised ever since.

But we learned from our mistake very quickly, and applied to join the new Community only four years after it had been founded. The Original Six then made an even bigger mistake. The British application was twice rebuffed. Britain was eventually allowed in only after twelve whole years had passed, and under financial arrangements that were patently inequitable and had to be renegotiated. It is hardly surprising that the British felt uncomfortable in a body where they were accused of being “un-European” whenever they expressed their own views about the way the thing should be run.

We all made mistakes. I have no intention of distributing praise or blame. But the emotions generated in those years still cast a shadow. We respect the arguments of those who want to go now for the most far reaching interpretation of the goals of political and economic union. But our centuries-old experience in building a stable and peaceful political society has led us to be suspicious of attempts to force the pace of history.

There is a metaphor that the Community is a bicycle that will fall over if not ridden full speed ahead. But if you cycle too fast you may hit a stone and crack your head and lose direction. The British believe that durable political institutions are like coral reefs; best built slowly but surely. There is nothing “un-European” about that.

In recent months Europe has hit just such a stone. It is quite clear ordinary people – not only in Denmark and France, in Germany or in Britain – are unhappy at the pace of events. They are dissatisfied with the explanations they have been given by their political leaders. They fear they are being asked to give up their cherished national traditions and their political institutions, their freedom to manage their own affairs as they see fit. They feel they have been taken for granted, rushed by events, and bamboozled by contorted bureaucratic formulae which bear no relation to the everyday language they use themselves.

These people are not ignorant. They are not foolish. They are not opposed to European cooperation. It is now up to their leaders to explain what they are doing, in language that the ordinary people of Europe can understand, and to carry forward the building of our common institutions at a pace and in a manner which they can accept.

So the first lesson of the last few months is that the procedures of the European Community must be opened up and brought closer to ordinary people in all the European countries. The European Commission has an essential role in initiating proposals and ensuring fair play between the Community’s sovereign members. But it must consult those who are affected by its proposals in far greater depth before it brings its ideas to the Council of Ministers. It is the Parliaments in each member state which guarantee our national freedoms, each in their own unique way. All of us must get away from dreadful Eurojargon, the contorted language of European communiques which does little to enlighten its leaders.

Second, we need to be much clearer about the tasks which need to be done by the European Community, and those which should be left to the legislative and executive institutions of individual countries. This is what is meant by “subsidiarity”, itself an unattractive piece of Eurojargon which nevertheless embodies an important principle.

Above all, we need to be clear about where the European Community is going. There are those who argue that it will eventually become a Federation, a United States of Europe with a single government, a single economy, a single army. I simply do not believe it. The argument is based on a false analogy with the history of the United States of America. The USA grew out of a confederation of thirteen small colonies with a common language, common law, and a common political tradition. Even so the Americans did not establish their unity without a bloody civil war.

The members of the Community are engaged in an enterprise unique in history; to create amongst the nation states of Europe what the authors of the Treaty of Rome wisely described in deliberately vague language as “an even closer union” of the European peoples.

A crucial part of that enterprise is the Single Market for which businessmen throughout Europe have been pressing for many years. Our common effort to create the biggest free trade area in the world is well on its way to completion. It offers opportunities to all Europeans, to create new jobs and greater prosperity.

The Exchange Rate Mechanism was intended as an instrument for promoting stability. But the events of the last few weeks have demonstrated beyond doubt that the ERM has been operating under excessive strains. Two of its members have had to suspend their membership. A third currency has been devalued, and exchange controls activated in three member states. Barriers to trade in Europe have gone up, not down. That is now what any of us intended. We must now take a serious look at the conditions under which the mechanism has operated. The pound will not return to it until we are convinced that the mechanism can operate in the interests of all its participants.

Some people hope, and others fear, that the Economic and Monetary Union proposed on the Maastricht Treaty is a step towards a Federal Europe. I have already explained why I believe that the hopes and fears are unrealistic. A single central bank and a single currency – firstly under the control of all the member states – might make the conduct of monetary policy more responsive to the needs of all these states. But neither can come into being until the economies of the European countries are much more closely aligned than they are at present.

At Maastricht I was sceptical about the timetable proposed, and determined that the final decision should be left to the British Parliament. I am not surprised that the Bundestag, too, wishes to be heard at the decisive moment. When the time comes, I would expect other Parliaments and other political leaders to say the same. That is right and healthy, the arrangements set out in the Maastricht Treaty will simply fail unless they are backed by the clearly expressed will of all the member states.

The Maastricht Treaty is not perfect, it could not hope to be, since it seeks to reflect a consensus of twelve sovereign states. Nor does it exhaust the European agenda. There is much to do beyond our discussion of the future of Maastricht. There are tasks for the short term which will enhance our common prosperity: the completion of the single market to remove the barriers to trade with Europe; a GATT agreement to lower the barriers to international trade. But there are tasks for the long term as well. Above all, those of us who are already engaged in building a peaceful, prosperous, outward-looking and democratic Europe have a duty to our fellow Europeans who are still outside the Community.

It is to everyone’s advantage that we should extend membership as soon as possible to the prosperous democracies of EFTA. But I go further than that. The Community has already shown what the path of cooperation meant to the new democracies of Spain, Portugal and Greece. It is our duty to bring the same benefits to the new democracies emerging from the darkness of Communism. It will be a complex and protracted task. But if we do not embark upon it, we will not be forgive by history.

The Maastricht Treaty maps out a way forward for the Community to advance together. It sets attainable goals, and reasonable aspirations, for the years ahead. I negotiated it under the authority of the British Parliament, and it formed part of the mandate upon which I and the Conservative Party won the election last April. I shall bring it back to the British Parliament in the very near future. The debate in our Parliament will be serious, detailed, protracted, often noisy. Our Parliamentarians rightly want to know exactly what the Treaty will mean in practice for our country and out future. But I have no doubt that the Treaty will be passed.

One thing must be clear beyond a doubt. The Treaty cannot come into force unless it is ratified by all Twelve member states of the Community. That will not happen unless all member states are convinced that the Treaty is in their interest. It is pointless to try to force any member state – however large or small – into supporting European policies in which it does not believe. To do so would be to undermine that common purpose on which the achievements of the Community depend, and without which the Community cannot stand.