"We are the grit in the oyster" - John Major

“The UK is independent, but not isolationist”, says former British Prime Minister John Major. He discusses Britain’s future, diplomatic neuroses, and penalty shots.

Photo by Lars Mensel

Photo by Lars Mensel


Sir John, during your leadership, you pleaded for Britain to be “at the heart of Europe”. Today, it seems that the UK is moving further and further away from it. How frustrated are you about this state of affairs?
I don’t think we are distancing ourselves from Europe to the extent that many of our European friends might think. It is most unlikely that we would join the Euro – that is almost inconceivable. But put that aside and you will realize that the ambitions the UK has for the EU are not very different from those that Europe has for itself. The EU was established to make sure that the whole European continent – and that includes Britain – was able to operate on an equal basis with the giant nations of the world such as China or the U.S., and we still wish to see that, instead of seeing a lot of European pygmies facing these great giants. The argument to work together in our communal interest is as great today as it was in the 1950s. It would be a mistake to think that the British see that in a different way than our fellow Europeans – we don’t.

How can we assure this when there is so much opposition from countries such as the UK?
It is true that this is where most discussions and disputes arise; the member states often find it difficult to agree on the direction the EU should head. Right now, the EU faces a critical moment: For the best part of the last ten years, we have had almost negligible growth, and in southern Europe there is a whole generation of young Europeans facing disastrous unemployment levels. Exclude Germany from the unemployment statistics of the euro zone and you will see how enormously high they are. It can be in nobody’s interest to have a whole generation of young people who see Europe having failed them. We British acknowledge this as much as everybody else. We are not sitting there smugly saying “We can’t be bothered, we have got 3% growth”. Europe is our key market and we therefore want the continent to grow. That’s why we want Europe to turn away a little from the vision of what we might be in 20 years’ time and instead focus on the problems young people across the continent are encountering in the here and now.

Are you hopeful that this can be achieved?
I am. We need to realize that certain problems need to be tackled at the root. Migration would drop significantly if we were to tackle the unemployment problem in southern Europe. If young Spaniards or Greeks had prospects, hope, and jobs in their country, then why would they move? Migrating is a very brave decision and I have the utmost respect for those who can gather the courage to move to a foreign country in order to find better prospects for themselves and their families. We want a Europe in which everybody can do that but nobody has to do it. When it comes to the big issues, we British and our European friends sing from the same hymn sheet. It’s just that the Anglo-Saxon mind looks at a problem and says: “Here is the immediate problem; what do we do about it?”. That’s why we push for reform within the EU.

Banging on about Europe has a long tradition in the UK, and yet it seems that British Euroscepticism is having its heyday at the moment. Is that only due to the economic downturn in Europe?
There has been an unenthusiastic portion of our population from the moment we joined the European Union, and that portion has grown over the course of time. That has to do with our history, which is in many ways a mirror image of the continent’s. We are an Anglo-Saxon island, and I think that gives you a different kind of outlook. Therefore, there has always been a minority of the population who emotionally regard themselves as being British but not European. But this feeling fades with each generation. Each successive generation regards itself as more European than its predecessor. Whereas my generation put on its knapsack and went to Brighton for the weekend, the modern generation puts on its knapsack and goes around the world. The magnification of suspicion of Europe has risen for a number of factors and the economic difficulties play a large part in this – but not only in Britain.

What other factors have contributed to this estrangement?
With the advent of the euro, it looked to many people in Britain as if the EU is moving away from us because it has gone down a route that it knew we couldn’t go down. That was fueling suspicion and antagonism. We also have a political party, UKIP, that is dedicated to taking us out of Europe. You have one here in Germany as well, but yours is still in its infancy; ours is a little more mature. But make no mistake: UKIP does not represent the majority of the British population. Present the people with the broader arguments and they will be persuaded that staying within the EU is in our best interest. But we have to have some indication that Britain and Europe can find agreement on difficult issues and that’s what the re-negotiations are going to be all about.

You have recently argued that Europe could find itself “sleepwalking into antagonisms it cannot repair”. How big a danger is that?
Big, but I think it is absolutely avoidable. It’s only going to happen if the negotiators on both sides do not recognize the danger. Europe has an extraordinary gift for compromise – it’s always had it. With 28 member states that do not always share the same points of view, compromise is essential to the proper functioning of the EU. There is a lot of low-hanging fruit, so compromises should be easy to forge in order to reach an agreement. I have absolutely no doubt that the UK and the EU can find agreement, provided that we remove the misunderstandings and neuroses that often exist in negotiations between European countries.

What kind of misunderstandings are you referring to?
I am shocked about the extent of the misunderstanding about the British position on freedom of movement. If we discuss these issues rather than debate them through a megaphone, then we are likely to achieve agreement. Unfortunately, all too often it is not about finding agreement but about justifying disagreement. But we need agreement for a very particular reason.

Which is?
If we have this referendum and the British people re-endorse their membership of the European Union, the whole situation is transformed. The underlying problem for many people in Britain is that they entered an economic entity some forty years ago and it has grown into an economic and political entity that they did not vote for. If we now negotiate, reach agreement, and then place that before the British people so that they vote for this wider entity, it opens a whole new freedom of action for all future British governments and allows for a better relationship between my country and the EU. That is why it is so desirable to lance this boil and have this referendum.

David Cameron seems to find himself trapped between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, he needs to propose a referendum to win over Eurosceptic voters and ward off UKIP, but on the other hand, he would prefer to stay in the EU. What is your appraisal of this situation?
If we can have a sensible re-negotiation, the outcome will be that we will have a really good case to put to the British people for staying in the European Union. I mean, suppose we left: Europe would lose its most outward-looking nation and Germany would lose its largest trading partner. We in turn would lose our influence in many capitals in the world. Are they going to invest in Britain for a 60 million market rather than the 500 million market of the EU? Will we Britons be able to carry the same influence at the United Nations or in the G8? Is that really credible? I don’t think so. A UK outside of the EU will lose some of its influence and power. That case must be used to recapture the hearts and minds of the British people. And it is a much more attractive case than this negativism of anti-European sentiment. So I’m not too worried.

But Britain also has a very strong sense of independence, and some argue that leaving the EU would free the country from the impositions coming from Brussels.
We are independent but not isolationist. The EU might have influence in the UK but so do we in Germany, France, and other European countries. It is an agreement. It is a swap.

Does it benefit both sides equally?
I think so. From an economical point of view, it is very important for us to stay in Europe. But it is also politically very important. Take the Ukrainian conflict: It is the British view that Russia behaved very foolishly in effectively occupying and controlling Crimea. But if we British alone had imposed sanctions on Russia, it would have irritated them but it would not really have hurt them. The fact that we and our European partners worked together to impose sanctions on Russia changed the situation. That is political influence. How frustrated would we feel if we weren’t in a position to do that? And it isn’t only that: Working with our European partners against Ebola, for instance. Which country invented Common Foreign and Security Policy? It was Britain. We’re not opposed to working with our European partners. The Single Market was also a British idea. You could stretch that list quite a long way, and the point is: We are positive about much we have done in Europe.

And yet the public seems to focus solely on the negative things and the disagreements.
The negative noises get publicity because that is the nature of our modern world, I am afraid. But if you look at the positive things successive British governments – Conservative, Labour, and Coalition – have done, you see a whole range of developments in Europe that have either been initiated by the British or, in many cases, initiated by the British and the Germans together.

For example?
Subsidiarity or enlargement to the East. I remember discussing both of these things with Helmut Kohl long before we went to Maastricht. We British have wanted to open up the corridor to the East in exactly the same way Germany has because we wish – in the long term – to create a wider free market in Europe, because we think it is in Europe’s best interest. We are not negative, not anti-European, we are not spoilers. We are the grit in the oyster – that is true. But if you look at what we have done, I would argue very strongly that our role has been overwhelmingly positive in Europe and will remain so.

The discussion about the referendum is mainly based on an economic or political basis. What is lacking is a cultural or identity aspect like the one that was visible in the Scottish referendum. Is European identity a part of British identity?
If you mean that by signing the treaties in 1973 we suddenly became fully-fledged cultural European thinkers, we didn’t. But the enlightenment across Europe affected Britain as much as it did continental countries. And increasingly with the generations, it is improving. People are beginning to feel more at home with Europe than earlier generations with earlier experiences.

But there is still a long way to go?
We mustn’t rush Europe. The European Union has only been around for 50 years or so. That is a blink of an eye! When you consider how far it has come in 50 years… I bet if you were interviewing Mr. Schumann 50 years ago and I was listening in, he would not have imagined how far Europe would have developed in 50 years. You two are going to be here in another 50 years – I wish I could say the same thing about myself, but I am not sure I can. Change is accelerating and not slowing down – you will find a wholly different proposition in 50 years. Be patient and see how things develop.

Is the often difficult discourse between member states necessarily a part of that development? You have pointed out in the past that the EU has a reputation for pragmatism, and yet its members seem to always quarrel.
It is like a family. Do you have a family?

Do they quarrel?

Major: Do they stay together?

Of course.
Major: I rest my case.

You can’t secede from your family.
I will let you in on a deep and dark secret. When all the heads of governments sit around the European table – and I sat at it for a very long time – first and foremost in their mind, whatever their oratory might say, is the interest of their country. They are there to represent France, Britain, Germany, Spain, and Italy. And they may cast their arguments in European terms, but their country is what they are there for first and foremost. But that has not stopped Europeans reaching agreements and finding consent. There is no such thing as a negotiation that is made without concessions on both sides. If there aren’t concessions on both sides, it isn’t a negotiation – it is an imposition. And that is what has happened in Europe. Even after 50 years, you will still hear the nation states in Europe squabbling. That will always be the case. I will not be here to see it, but I confidently predict it. But that doesn’t mean Europe can’t reach agreements.

Do you think Europe gets enough credit for the agreements it does reach?
No, I don’t think it does. It depends on what countries you look at, but it certainly doesn’t in a number of European countries. And you can see the problem and why it is happening: In a whole range of Europe there are now political parties dedicated to damaging Europe. If you look at the European Parliament, there are a number of MEPs who have been elected to undermine Europe.

One of the areas in which compromise is very much needed is of course the misconception of the freedom of movement. You have pointed out that migration is a demographic problem for the UK and that the principle of Freedom of Movement must be maintained as much as the problem must be managed. How can that be done?
Let me first make the underlying point: Germany, for example, is very worried about our demand for some restraint on the Freedom of Movement for two reasons; firstly, the unity of West Germany and East Germany was free movement in action. That strikes very deep into the instincts. The division of Berlin and hence Germany was a scar upon Europe. But let me say something else: Your population is falling. You need immigrants to sustain your economy. And thirdly, you are geographically a big nation; you have space and you have room. Now consider the converse in Britain. Our population is not falling; our population has risen by 7% in the last decade.

Is immigration more a question of geography than of responsibility?
Geographically, we are a small nation. And we welcome people who come and bring skills to our country – we think it is flattering to our country that they come. But they are coming in such large numbers that we cannot cope with their housing, their welfare, their social security. It isn’t just a question of benefit-tourism; Germany is going to impose rules on that and we will too. But to be frank: Very few of the eastern Europeans who come to us are benefit tourists. They come to the UK to work. So our problem is simply that the scale of it is such that we cannot cope. That is not always going to be the case. When Europe begins to grow again, the impetus to leave will be less. The degree of immigration will fall. So we have, as it were, a hump: a short period in which there are no jobs elsewhere and there is a particular focus on the United Kingdom. And it is more than we can cope with. And just as you – if I may say so – have people in Bavaria who are very concerned about immigration, so have we.

But Bavaria alone can’t refuse to accept further immigrants …
But, to be brutally honest, because of the scale of it, we have bigger reason to be concerned than our friends in Bavaria. What can we do about it? I have several ideas of what can be done about it but am not going to offer you a prescription for a simple reason: The moment you start doing that, you get anti-forces knocking it down and starting to say that it can’t be put into practice. So this is a matter that has to be settled in private negotiations. I have learned enough about negotiating in Europe to know that once you start to float something in public, you kill it as an idea that can be an agreement – so I am not going to do it and I hope you will forgive me for not doing so. But let me make one other point about this: We are told by some European figures that we cannot do anything at all about Freedom of Movement because it is one of the founding freedoms of the European Union. And it is – that is perfectly true. But so are three other freedoms, none of which have been fully honored.

For example?
Have we got completely free movement of goods? No. Is the Single Market complete? Not by a long way. If the Single Market were complete, it would be a huge bonus to the United Kingdom with our service, insurance, and banking activities in other European nations. So are we to be told by our European friends that free movement of people is sacrosanct, it is a founding elements of the European Union and it cannot even be constrained at a time of emergency, and yet all of the other things that we signed up to in 1973 and enshrined in legislation in 1987 can be left unfinished? How would Germany respond to that argument if it were in our shoes?

One could think the response would be: Before we restrict the Freedom of Movement, we should rather make sure all other agreements are honored.
Let us do so then. Let us do so and it will change the British perception of Europe. Let us have complete Freedom of Movement. Let us complete the Single Market. Let us complete an energy market. Let us complete a digital market. Let us complete a free movement of goods. Let us complete a free movement of services. Not only would that spark the most enormous boom to the whole of Europe, but you would also strip away many of the things that cause the British to think: “Is this what we expected when we joined the European Union?” If we were able to do that and reach the TTIP agreement with the Americans, we would revolutionize Europe. And we would achieve a degree of competitiveness that enables us to compete with China and America. Because if we don’t, in those mythical 50 years I am talking about, if we continue to be less competitive, our living standards will fall below what they should be. If politics exist for anything, it must be to increase the living standards of the people the politicians were elected to serve. If Europe had completed all these other founding freedoms, you would have cut the British argument about Freedom of Movement at the knees.

We know that you like cricket very much. Do the British like it because we Germans never win at it?
We also like football very much and you often win at that. If you wished to improve the German perception in Britain, you should take a lesson in how to miss penalty kicks. You would endear yourselves to us immediately.

Interview for The European Magazine