Richard North, 05/07/2020
Work progresses apace with the revision of The Great Deception and, although I tend to work on several Chapters simultaneously, my current focus is on the 1991-2 period and the Maastricht Treaty.
As I did with my piece a week ago, I thought it would be entertaining and educative to look at what the media were saying at the time, and to contrast it with what was actually happening behind the scenes, with particular reference to the secret Cabinet documents.
Of the many interesting things about this Treaty, one that stands out was that it was a huge step forward in the process of European political integration, the point at which the long-standing ambition of the “colleagues” was realised, and they were able to set in motion the process of delivering the single currency.
But if that was the main headline accomplishment of the Treaty, there were others, including the notorious “social chapter and the introduction of the “pillar” structure which brought in to the Community ambit foreign policy and internal affairs.
Less obvious but equally significant, though, the treaty also greatly extended the areas of Commission “competences”, along with an extension of qualified majority voting to 30 more areas of policy – despite UK opposition.
Added to those already ceded under the Single European Act were “broad economic guidelines”, social policy, public health, consumer protection, telecommunications, energy, education, culture, vocational training and transport, including measures relating to the “trans-European network”.
There were also major extensions of Community control over environmental law, including for the first time “town and country planning” and “measures which significantly affect a member state’s choice between different energy sources”.
Here we have an interesting contrast because, when the Treaty was agreed in the provincial Dutch town of Maastricht on 11 December 1991, it was widely hailed as a victory for Major.
Yet, before the treaty was agreed, the then Foreign Minister Douglas Hurd, had told Cabinet colleagues on 5 December that, at a conclave of foreign ministers on 2-3 December, he and the Danish foreign minister ‘had opposed majority voting in any form’. (National Archives. CAB 128/100).
When Major reported back to the Cabinet on 12 December, he thus had to concede that “he had had to make concessions on some points which ideally he would have preferred to avoid”. In particular, he was forced to admit:
The Commission’s ability to continue to bring forward under the existing provisions of the Treaty, proposals for legislation which the United Kingdom found unpalatable, and which in some cases arguably amounted to misuse of the provisions in question, would remain. There could well be pressure to press ahead with such legislation during 1992, before the new Treaty entered into force at the beginning of 1993.
And yet, when Major came back home from Maastricht on 11 December, tired after an all-night session, he was treated almost in the manner of a conquering hero. The Times front-page carried the headline: “Major wins all he asked for at Maastricht”, and ’ the newspapers were almost unanimous in praise of what the Daily Telegraph called “Major’s success at Maastricht”.
The Daily Express was almost ecstatic. It splashed the headline across the front page: “Major wins Euro deal”, with the sub-heading: “Triumph as social charter is dropped from political treaty”. A page-6 story, headed: “MPs hail Major victory”, had British officials “throwing their hats in the air with delight” in Maastricht, “after Mr Major’s summit triumph”.
In London on Wednesday afternoon, Major made a statement to the Commons. It was received with acclaim and much waving of order papers. He told MPs:
This is a treaty which safeguards and advances our national interests. It advances the interests of Europe as a whole. It opens up new ways of co-operating in Europe. It clarifies and contains the powers of the Commission. It will allow the Community to develop in depth. It reaches out to other Europeans – the new democracies who want to share the benefits we already enjoy. It is a good agreement for Europe, and a good agreement for the United Kingdom.
The essence of the “good news” story though was pure spin. The media was being asked to focus on the things that Major had been able to protect – Britain’s right to stay out of the single currency, and out of the social chapter. It was completely in the dark about what had been given away.
Yet Major cannot have been wholly unaware what an immense range of powers he had ceded, perhaps indicated by his response to one of his own back-benchers, who asked him to summarise them. His reply was evasive. Detailed information, he said, “could be found in the Commons library”.’ In fact, it was to be months before MPs or anyone else would find out just how much had been surrendered.
The treaty itself had not been published and it was some months before a full, printed version became available. Even then it would be largely meaningless, because so much would be shown only as “amendments” to the existing treaties, comprehensible only when cross-referred to earlier texts. It was only when a private organisation produced a consolidated version were MPs able to see what had been agreed.
But what was terrifying about Mr Major, concealed from us by the secrecy afforded to Cabinet documents was what, might at best be called an alarming naiveté about the way the Community worked. In his very first Cabinet meeting as Prime Minister, on 29 November 1990, he told his Ministers:
It was questionable whether the Commission should retain the sole right of legislative initiative. If a group of member states had a united view on an issue, they should be able to put it on the Community’s agenda for discussion. On the other hand, there were some areas, notably agriculture, where giving a right of initiative to individual member states would lead to worse decisions, as compared with the present situation in which the Commission could exercise a degree of control. (National Archives. CAB 128/97)
This was thus a man who, as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom didn’t know how the Community worked. He could have done no better than read the book published in 1972 by Walter Hallstein – the first Commission President. The Commission, he wrote:
… has a responsibility to draft proposals and plans. This responsibility is not discretionary: it is obligatory, and it is obligatory in two ways. In the first place, the Commission is in duty bound to initiate action in all the many fields laid down in the Treaty of Rome … the Commission is entrusted with what virtually amounts to a monopoly in taking the initiative in all matters affecting the Community.
Written just before the UK joined the (then) EEC, nearly twenty years later we had a prime minister who didn’t understand that basic, driving force which defined the way the Community functioned.
Another of Major’s bizarre misunderstandings was his belief that the principle of subsidiarity, introduced with Maastricht, constituted “proof” that he had agreed a “decentralising treaty”.
For sure, it was Delors’ “big idea”, drawing from the encyclical Quadragesimo Anno, issued by the Vatican in 1931. This held that every task in society should be fulfilled by the smallest social unit capable of carrying it out, beginning with individuals and families, up through larger social units. Only when a task could not be fulfilled on a lower level, it was held, should a higher unit step in and take over.
But, crucially, the “sub-units” had no veto. It was up to what Delors called the “higher agencies” to decide when subsidiarity should apply. That agency was, of course, the Commission, which would decide whether it needed to hand its powers down to a lower level. And, of course, it never did.
Small wonder, Maastricht proved to be another turning point: 1992 proved to be the year when Euroscepticism was reborn, paving the road to Brexit. This was the measure of Mr Major’s “triumph”, the one the media was so keen to tell us all about – as always, feeding us a diet of lies.