European unity takes center stage in British election
Tories: Only Major can protect country's sovereignty
April 17, 1997
Web posted at: 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT)
LONDON (CNN) -- How far and how fast Britain should integrate
itself into the rest of Europe is an issue that British
political leaders didn't particularly want to talk about in
their election campaign.
But, like it or not, they are now talking about it. A revolt
within his own Conservative Party on the issue of whether
Britain should join the European Union's planned single
currency left Prime Minister John Major with no choice.
And Conservative, or Tory, leaders are making sure that the opposition Labour Party's position on Europe is being equally well scrutinized.
On Thursday, the Conservatives took out full-page ads in
several newspapers, hoping to convince voters that British
sovereignty will be safe only in Major's hands.
The appeal came a day after Major made an impassioned plea
urging that his wait-and-see policy on joining a single
European currency was best for Britain.
"Whether you agree with me or disagree with me, like me or
loathe me, don't bind my hands when I am negotiating on
behalf of the British nation," Major said.
'Euroskeptics' rebel on common European currency
Conservative backbenchers, joined by some of Major's own
junior cabinet ministers, are in open rebellion over the
currency issue. These so-called "Euroskeptics" are dead set
against Britain giving up its own currency in favor of a
Major, on the other hand, says he would not rule out currency
union with Europe, but he says it would first have to be
approved by voters in a referendum after further
A recent poll showed only 22 percent of British voters think
currency union is a good idea. At least 170 Conservative
candidates for Parliament have abandoned their prime minister
on this issue, to the delight of the Labour Party.
"The difficulty for the Conservatives is that John Major may
negotiate if he is re-elected, but his party will decide,"
said Labour leader Tony Blair. "I mean, that's the problem,
isn't it? We know that he is not in charge of his own party."
Major says he won't enforce party line
But on Thursday, Major made a concession to the Euroskeptics
in his party. He indicated that he would probably not force
his fellow Tory lawmakers to tow the party line on future
votes on currency integration. Instead, he said he would
probably allow a "free vote" on the issue.
Trailing in the polls, Major's recent moves toward the
Euroskeptic position are seen as an attempt to capitalize on
the country's growing unease over integration with Europe --
be it the contentious issue of fishing rights or the loss of
the queen's face on their beloved pound.
Despite their own differences on Europe, Conservatives are
attacking Blair and Labour for not having a consistent policy
at all on the issue.
"They have a posture on Europe, and that posture changes
depending [on] whether the audience is a continental one or
one back home here in this country," says Foreign Minister
Six weeks after Britain's May 1 election, the next prime
minister will have to go to Amsterdam to negotiate a crucial
treaty on greater European integration. The Conservative
argument is that only Major is experienced enough to
represent British interests in such a pivotal negotiation.
The question is whether voters will buy that argument or see
the battle over Europe as one more example of a prime
minister who can't even keep his own party in line.
Correspondent Siobhan Darrow and Reuters contributed to this report.
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