After hot and heavy debate, Major gets OK for yes-maybe policy on Europe

November 22, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- There were occasions over the past two days when all decorum flew out the window of the mother of Parliaments, such as the moment when Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock referred to one of his colleagues across the aisle as "a jerk."

That was only one of the highlights and low points in a rancorous, frequently funny and occasionally illuminating debate on Britain's future participation in the European Community.

It ended last night with the House of Commons endorsing 351-250 the Conservative government's strategy as it approaches the December summit in Maastricht, Netherlands, where it will sign, or decline to sign, treaties committing Britain to deeper union with the 11 other members.

The issues raised by the treaties are complicated. They involve such things as a single currency, the transfer of decision-making powers from national governments to the community in the areas of defense, foreign policy and social welfare regulation, and a commitment to pursue what has been described as a "federal vocation."

But if the treaties are complex and still not entirely defined, the choices they present are clear to Prime Minister John Major. He stated them at the outset of the debate:

"There are, in truth, only three ways of dealing with the community. We can leave it, and no doubt we would survive. But we would be diminished in influence and in prosperity. Or we can stay in it grudgingly, in which case others will lead it. Or we can play a leading role in it."

The latter, he said, "is the right policy."

Mr. Major was eloquent and firm. He would not sign a treaty with the word "federal" anywhere in it, he vowed. He would not let the Europeans dispose of NATO. He would not let them impose a single currency on Britain, and he has insisted on an "opt-out clause," reserving to Britain the right to do just that in the years jTC ahead when the single currency is to come into being.

Mr. Kinnock was scathing. He trashed the Tories' approach to Europe as a search for a "semidetached arrangement." He warned that this reluctance to fully engage in the EC would scare away potential investors, such as the Japanese, looking for a platform to set up factories to sell their products throughout the community.

"This is a dreary, demeaning and ultimately self-defeating posture," he said. "It is playing for a draw."

Margaret Thatcher was -- well, Thatcheresque. Though she voted for the resolution supporting the government, she gave Mr. Major no genuine support.

She urged the man who replaced her as prime minister to emulate her approach to Europe: Where she struck with her handbag, he should use his cricket bat.

"We should not make a massive transfer of powers to the community, which is not accountable to our electorate," she said, and she insisted that most British people agree with her. (Polls indicate she may be right.)

Edward Heath, the Tory mandarin who led Britain into the European Community in 1973, was the last major figure to speak. He said simply that, if Europe is to have "a single, open market with all obstructions removed, a single currency is inevitable."

For him, that's all there was to it.

The parliamentary debate, and the broader one that preceded it nationally, are unique in Europe. None of the other EC states manifests the doubts and divisions the British seem to hold. And they are real doubts, for it is possible that when the treaties are put on the table, Mr. Major might not sign.

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