Britain to stand by Danes: Major ready to join EC slow lane if referendum rejects treaty

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JOHN MAJOR and Douglas Hurd told EC colleagues at the Edinburgh summit that Britain would stand by the Danish people if they rejected the Maastricht treaty again next year - even if that meant moving into the slow lane of a two- speed Europe.

The Prime Minister's office was making strenuous efforts last night to play down the importance of the sink-or-swim stand, arguing that the achievements of Edinburgh on issues such as future financing, growth, subsidiarity and enlargement, were much more significant.

Although a Number 10 source dismissed it as a 'tiny, irrelevant point', the Foreign Secretary said in a BBC television On the Record interview that there had been a good deal of discussion at the summit about what would happen if the Danes said 'no' again.

The British, he said, had clarified two points: the legal point, that the treaty would fall automatically if it did not have the support of the 12; and the political point, 'that even though x members could go into a corner and negotiate a treaty for a smaller number, that wouldn't include us'. He added: 'It is not a political reality to suppose that we would sit down at once to negotiate a new treaty of wherever it might be, with 11 members without Denmark. We've always said that Denmark could not be excluded. It's a very important point.'

However Danish leaders said yesterday they were confident that the summit had paved the way to a decisive 'yes' vote in a second referendum on Maastricht to be held early next year.

Opposition parties gave their backing to an agreement allowing Denmark to opt out of key elements of a treaty on European union. 'The agreement contains substantial progress,' said Holger K Nielsen, leader of the opposition Socialist People's Party, which led the successful 'no' campaign in Denmark's June referendum on the Maastricht blueprint.

Recent opinion polls have suggested that most Danes will vote 'yes' next time although the margin has varied from 51- 49 to 60-40.

The Prime Minister's office said last night that all Mr Hurd had been saying was that the Community had to proceed as 12; that was accepted by all the EC members. But Mr Hurd went further yesterday, saying: 'There is a danger that if we don't ratify, others - maybe not immediately - will go ahead on the Continent with schemes which will powerfully affect jobs, prosperity, security of this country, but in which we have no part. It was the mistake we made in the Fifties; we shouldn't make it again.'

The suggestion that the other 10 members might carry on without Britain and Denmark was also made by Francois Mitterrand before he left Edinburgh. He said: 'During one of our meals, Major said if Denmark was again to reject the treaty, then he could not see how Britain could go along with Maastricht. The other 10 said they would continue with the construction of Europe, whatever happens.'

In spite of that confusion, one Tory loyalist said Mr Major will be given 'an ecstatic reaction' from his backbenchers when he returns to the Commons today to make his statement on the summit.

John Smith will attack the summit's failure to do more for the unemployed, but Labour is keeping open the option of abstaining on the third reading. That would allow the treaty to be ratified and with the support of the Liberal Democrats, ensure Mr Major a substantial majority.

Tory rebels are determined to continue the line-by-line fight with Labour over the Bill's committee stage. James Cran, the official whip for the anti-Maastricht rebels, said the summit had 'changed nothing'.

Some Shadow Cabinet members will press for Labour to try to defeat the Government by voting against the Bill. But one Maastricht opponent said: 'The Government will get it through.'

The Chancellor, who estimated that the summit package for growth amounted to up to pounds 24bn, said he was concerned about the prospect of a drawn-out battle, but said ratification would go ahead 'as quickly as we can'. He could not say when that would be because, he said, the Government could not bully the Commons.

Mr Lamont and Sir Norman Fowler, the party chairman, sought to portray the outcome as a personal triumph for Mr Major. 'He has delivered a good deal for Britain on almost every issue,' Mr Lamont said.

Luxembourg verdict, page 6

Summit reports, pages 11 and 12

Leading article, page 18

Andrew Marr, page 19