The Rt. Hon. Sir John Major KG CH

Prime Minister of Great Britain and Northern Ireland 1990-1997


Mr Major’s Article on Europe – 15 October 2004

The text of Mr Major’s article in the Conference Magazine – Conservative Group for Europe, published in October 2004.


The Prime Minister and the Chancellor are at odds over Europe. There are Cabinet splits about the offer of a referendum. Dissent lurks on the backbenches. An anti-European fringe party threatens to elevate European policy into Party warfare while a largely hostile-to-Europe Press licks its lips, hungry to magnify the fall-out. This is European policy under a Labour Government in 2004. How hauntingly familiar.

There are essentially three contrasting points of view upon Europe:

(i) It can do no right – which is the view of extreme sceptics such as UKIP and the former Referendum Party – whom we might call the Ultras to distinguish them from those of more moderate scepticism;

(ii) It can do no wrong – Federalists, extreme euro-philiacs; or

(iii) That it is, on balance, favourable to the UK but that elements of policy frustrate and irritate. Like most of the British nation, I belong to the third – and majority – school of thought. I for one would like to make the EU more popular: but can it be done?

Nothing, I suspect, will change the views of the Ultras – who are beyond arguing with over Europe: the worry is that they have begun to shift the centre of gravity towards arch-scepticism. This has the potential both to divorce the UK from Europe – which, for the Ultras, is the ultimate goal of their scepticism – and wreak havoc upon the British political system (especially the Conservative Party). Much the Ultras care: even those who call themselves Conservatives subordinate the Conservative Party’s interests to those of their anti-European cause. Indeed, some of the most prominent UKIP Members are former Conservative MPs who helped ferment the rebellions that crippled the last Conservative Government. No Conservative should expect help from them – and no Conservative should do any deals with them. Since nothing can be done with this group it is necessary to ignore their shrill message and direct policy to reassure the bulk of the electorate.

What can be done to achieve this? It would be beneficial to have an honest debate among adversaries, but that is unlikely.

It would be desirable to have a fair and balanced media, but that is unobtainable. The written Press especially, is as deeply entrenched in the dispute as the political adversaries. The pro-EU Press has an air of sanctimony in which all dissenters – and their arguments, even when valid – are grandly dismissed. And the anti-EU Press is relentless in its campaign and careless of the implications of it.

If reason and commonsense could heal the rifts over Europe they would have been mended long ago. But words alone cannot do it; suspicion and unease have grown continually since the Single European Act in 1986 and nothing has assuaged it. Indeed, it has worsened since most European Treaties are the natural father of the successor Treaty.

I recall that, throughout the negotiations on the Maastricht Treaty, I was constantly reminded that Margaret Thatcher had signed up to “ever closer Union” and a large extension of qualified majority voting (thus reducing the British veto). So why, I was asked, was I so obstinate over the Euro, the Social Chapter and a further extension of QMV?

As a result of the growing collective influence of successive Treaties, the public tend to see European policy as a juggernaut that cannot be stopped and which tramples over every sensitivity. This is the most damaging perception of all and the root of much suspicion over Europe.

Europe has now enlarged its membership to 25 Nation States, and when Giscard D’Estaing’s Committee was established to make recommendations that would update the practices and administration of the EU, I welcomed it. Europe needed reform to accommodate enlargement and many prizes loomed: consolidation of existing complex treaties; a more effective form of European administration and – above all – whispers that the recommendations would finally set out in Treaty form the limits of European imposition upon the authority of National Government. Against this yardstick, the European Constitution makes some helpful moves, but overall it is a lost opportunity for those of us who wished to minimise the existing suspicions about the direction of policy.

Pro-Europeans should not fool themselves. It will not be easy to turn around the present hostility to the EU. For too long foolish myths have been, if not unchallenged, at least undestroyed. The reality is our European Partners are not concerned with “doing Britain down”; they do not all have a federalist agenda; they are less and less in the Franco-German camp. All this is true, but it’s hard to persuade a majority to agree. Indeed, among Member States, the Anglo-Saxon view of the EU has more supporters now than ever before, Margaret Thatcher and I would have warmly welcomed such reinforcements in earlier disputes. Europe can be made more acceptable to the British view, but only if the Ultras are put to flight. Since their myths are often the stuff of tabloid fancy, this will be hard pounding. Nor is it made easier by those criticisms of the EU that are well justified.

What is the case for Europe for those prepared to be persuaded? It remains powerful. The EU is the largest, richest free trade area in history and spreads from Ireland in the West to the very borders of Russia in the East. In years to come, one can see those borders increasing ever further – to take in Turkey and, perhaps, other nearby States, and possibly even to reach an accommodation with Russia herself.

But it is not just valuable for free trade. It has made a major European war inconceivable as the entangling of trade and investment build up common interests. It can provide an economic counter-weight to the power of the United States and the potential power of China. It offers opportunities to the rising generations that their forbears never enjoyed. These may be grand themes but they are indispensable to the well-being of individual Europeans.

The fundamental problem, it seems to me – as a wellwisher who believes there is a limit to integration and that we are close to it – is that Europe’s true failings and its over ambitious agenda encourage any myth about it to gain currency.

The wise European would be cautious about entering the Euro zone (which is plainly not in our short-term interest); very sniffy about parts of the new “Constitution” (which is a step too far in its present form – although it does have some good aspects); and would be determined to make an onslaught on fraud and mismanagement.

Much is going our way in Europe and we need to rebuild domestic confidence in our membership of the European Union. To do so, we must neither fear to build upon developments in tune with our British instincts nor to resist those that go too far.