Acontinuing refrain of the Brexiteers is that Britain has always lost out to the rest of Europe in negotiations. This derives partly from the way successive governments have portrayed the EU as a battleground in which there is room only for victory or defeat. It is also explained by the tendency of politicians to blame “Europe” for everything – often to divert attention from their own shortcomings.
In fact, the UK has led Europe in a remarkable way, and has rarely failed to gain its major objectives. However the process is one of debate and argument, proof and counter-argument, rather than demanding that the rest of EU should immediately see the sense in our position and give way without question. It is this assumption of always being right that has bedevilled our relationships with our neighbours.
When I first went into the Department of the Environment (DoE) on a Monday in 1993 I looked at my diary. Fresh from four years as minister of agriculture, I knew that there was a two-day meeting of the European Council of Environment Ministers ahead, yet there seemed nothing in the diary. “Why,” I asked. “Oh,” said the civil servant, “the secretary of state doesn’t go to Brussels unless we have something to tell them to do.”
That changed there and then, and I sat at the council table the following Thursday. Facing the first controversial discussion, I asked my adviser what the Spanish position was. “Well,” came the reply, “we haven’t spoken to them since Christmas, so I’m not sure.” Similarly semi-detached attitudes were revealed throughout that first session.
It came as a real shock after my long period at Agriculture, where the UK had built a reputation for informed and committed negotiation. My predecessors there, Michael Jopling and John MacGregor, had built strong relationships with their fellow EU ministers. They trusted us and we trusted most of them. They knew that we would act consensually wherever possible, would try to understand their political drivers, and would be absolutely honest about our own political needs. As a result none of us lost a vote that really mattered – even when the logic was wholly against the British position.
One example suffices. In a single market, the UK’s refusal to allow the export of live horses for food was clearly illegal but politically essential. All the odds were stacked against us, Belgium was becoming increasingly insistent, and a vote was looming. We had one strong card: our relationships. We had helped others in parallel positions, helping to find ways for the EU to meet its common objectives while recognising national differences.
My very effective minister of state, David Curry, and I had formed friendships and we took trouble to maintain them. Many of our fellow ministers had come to Britain and stayed at our homes. Above all, we had never pretended. They all knew that if we said something was really important to the UK, we weren’t bluffing.
We were always communautaire – but in the national interest. When the relatively new French minister, a socialist, in a very restricted session, without his key advisers, had agreed to something that would have been very difficult for France, I slipped round the table and pointed the problem out. He was able to retrieve the situation, the council was saved interminable recriminations, and Britain had a firm friend. Working as a team, clearly putting our national interest first but ensuring we got the best out of the EU, meant that when it mattered we won. I don’t suggest that my counterparts ever really understood the peculiar British view that it’s all right to eat beef but not horse, but they accepted it was a political reality and knew the UK would help when they had to explain their own national singularities.
Mind you, you had to work at it. My first meeting of EU environment ministers was decidedly frosty, as I sought to defend the government’s support for Shell’s decision to dump the Brent Spar oil facility in the North Sea, to a council dominated by the leftwing Danish minister, Svend Auken. Lecturing them would have fitted the British stereotype but done us no favours. Listening, arguing, explaining and showing we believed in the system and wanted to learn as well as teach – that made all the difference.
I learned too that the Department of the Environment’s previous way of working in Europe was shared by other British government departments. Yet, once we got a more constructive attitude to prevail, we found we achieved a better result. And the success for Britain was manifest. The BSE crisis could have destroyed the British meat industry. In the event, solidarity won over the temptation for easy political wins from our continental competitors. They knew that they, too, could have problems that only solidarity and commitment to the science would solve. They knew, too, that in those circumstances we wouldn’t take advantage, although we’d fight our corner as toughly as any.
And active, supportive membership helped us win battles back at home. In 1993 we were still seen as the dirty man of Europe. We were fighting to keep universal landfill; we had sewage on our beaches; and our water quality left much to be desired. EU environment rules made us put all that right. We became leaders on environmental agriculture and on climate change, but we learned as well as led. We were not semi-detached but committed to the EU – the greatest peacetime project of our lives, which through arrogance and poisonous self-regard we now seek to undo.
• John Gummer, Lord Deben, is a Conservative peer who served in John Major’s government as secretary of state for the environment between 1993 and 1997