Britain isolated over EU veto

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN'S isolation in Europe deepened yesterday at the Messina talks on the future shape of the European Union when the Government adamantly defended member states' right of veto.

"We will oppose the extension of majority voting in any area," David Davis, Minister of State at the Foreign Office, said, giving the clearest exposition yet of Britain's position ahead of next year's inter-governmental conference (IGC) on EU reform.

Speaking after the first meeting of the "reflection group" of EU representatives preparing the ground for the conference, Mr Davis made clear that Britain will resist any attempts to bring in another European treaty, only three years after Maastricht, and will call instead for consolidation.

Hopes that a consensus might emerge evaporated and it seems highly unlikely that the group will be able to agree a unanimous report in time for the Madrid summit in December.

As storm clouds gather over the whole IGC process, it is widely expected that the start of the main conference will be delayed until mid-1996, ending in mid- 1997, by which time the EU federalist camp hopes a more sympathetic Labour government will be in power in Britain.

Those at Messina agreed that the EU must urgently make itself stronger and more credible to Europe's disillusioned citizens, while preparing for enlargement to 27 members, when Eastern European states join.

But they presented different views of how it should be done. "Britain does not believe that strength means more centralisation," Mr Davis said, and added that more radical change would simply "bewilder the people". The EU should concentrate on improving competitiveness and defence while encouraging the Eastern Europeans to join.

Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, struck his most federalist tone yet by calling for a "new legal order". "It is our last chance, our only chance, to prepare for the next century and not to backtrack to the 19th century," he said.

Several of those taking part called for a "European citizenship" to make Europeans feel more involved. They argued that without greater integration the EU would become unworkable when its membership increased. Carlos Westendorp, the Spanish chairman, said the talks were not about a choice between federalism or more cooperation between governments. "The real discussion is whether there will be more integration or disintegration." There was also strong opposition from most member states to a two-speed Europe, and the right of states to "opt out" from certain decisions as Britain has done over the social policy and has the right to do over monetary union. "Europe should be a single union without an inner core and an outer core," Suzanna Agnelli, the Italian foreign minister, said. Claus Haensch, President of the European Parliament, who wants the parliament to have equal power with the Council of Ministers, was also there.

Britain however dismissed "theoretical ideas of European citizenship" and said it was "entirely premature" to extend more powers to the parliament. Mr Davis made clear that Britain would demand to keep the "flexibility" to opt out. The growing calls for more qualified majority voting, which prevents one country alone from blocking decisions, dominated the talks as expected. The European Commission and most member states believe that unless the right of a single country to wield the veto is reduced in further policy areas, including foreign policy and interior and justice policy, the EU will be unable to reach agreements.

Mr Davis said however: "More majority voting will not make decisions easier to take." Seeking to reduce more the powers of national states "will bring more problems than it solves and may bring about the resentment of the people of Europe".