Britain yields on treaty: EC foreign ministers agree to aim for Maastricht ratification, but no specific date is set

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN yielded to its EC partners and agreed after crisis talks between foreign ministers in New York yesterday that member states should aim to ratify the Maastricht treaty according to the timetable foreseen in the treaty text, and without renegotiating the content.

However, the declaration by the British presidency fell short of specifying the deadline of the end of the year - a target set by governments last June - and referred back to the more flexible schedule for ratification in the treaty.

Article R merely says that in the event of a failure to ratify it by 1 January 1993, the treaty will come into force on 'the first day of the month after the last signatory has achieved ratification'.

British officials conceded it was highly unlikely that Parliament would ratify the treaty before next year. Denmark, whose voters rejected Maastricht in June, is not due to present its white paper about the next move for three weeks, and the presidency will also await the outcome of the European Council called by John Major, which is likely to take place in London on 16 October.

The final declaration approved yesterday by the ministers attending the UN General Assembly said EC governments 'attached high priority to the speedy and successful conclusion of the process, without reopening the present text, on the timing foreseen in article R of the treaty'.

The declaration also expresses EC governments' 'determination to ensure that the preoccupation' brought to the fore in the Europe-wide discussion about the community's future 'will find specific responses in the future development of Europe internally and externally'.

This was seen as vindication by the British of their warnings against an over- centralised Europe. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said at a press conference afterwards that the European summit would deal specifically with progress towards subsidiarity - the principle where as much power as possible is delegated to individual governments.

The climb-down came after an earlier draft communique prepared by Britain left it virtually isolated. Officials from several EC countries had complained that the first draft did not accurately reflect the discussions, in particular the determination not to renegotiate the treaty.

British hopes for a renegotiation had been raised earlier in a BBC radio interview with Mr Hurd, who suggested that he wanted it on the agenda for the summit.

The proposal marked a reversal of previous government statements. But with the Conservative Party in turmoil over sterling's withdrawal from the exchange rate mechanism and what Mr Major called the 'wafer-thin' margin of Sunday's French referendum, it reflected the difficulties faced by the Government with this week's recall of Parliament.

The Prime Minister said in the London Evening Standard yesterday: 'We must not allow Europe to be paralysed by the dispute over the fate of the Maastricht treaty. But all of Europe's governments need to reflect hard on the lessons of the last few weeks and months, and on the future direction of the Community.'

Norman Lamont, Chancellor of the Exchequer, appeared to go further when he told the BBC that nearly half of the people of France, the most pro-European country of the EC, had expressed grave reservations about Maastricht. That meant that all members had to pause, reflect and ask: 'Are we justified in going forward?'

Although Jacques Delors, president of the EC Commission, and Sir Leon Brittan, the British vice-president, flatly ruled out any chance of renegotiation, Mr Hurd said in a BBC radio Today interview: 'There have got to be changes in the set-up, put it that way, in order to accommodate the Danes. The Danes can't go back to their people with exactly the proposition which the Danish people, though very narrowly, rejected on 2 June.

'So there have got to be changes. Whether they are changes to the treaty, or alongside the treaty, clarification, clearing things up that are obscure or messy, that is something which this summit in October will begin to have to talk about.'

Asked whether he was talking about redrafting the treaty, the Foreign Secretary said: 'No, I'm choosing my words quite carefully because there are different ways of skinning this particular cat.'

In the Evening Standard, Mr Major said: 'The Maastricht treaty embodies the first check on the trend to centralisation in Brussels.' But he added that the EC members could 'press ahead' with that change without waiting for ratification.

'I believe that the special deal we negotiated for Britain at Maastricht was a good one. But I have made it clear that I will not bring the Maastricht Bill back to the British Parliament until the Danes have made their intentions clear.'

Kenneth Clarke, the Home Secretary, denied on Radio 4's The World at One that the treaty was dead. 'We have to address the widespread public concern which has been demonstrated across Europe. There is a case for pausing, actually having a proper discussion about the concerns of the general public, about Europe in general.'

Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand meet today in Paris to discuss how to get the treaty back on track.

There was irritation in Bonn: 'One will have to ask John Major how seriously he takes the British (EC) presidency,' said Ursula Seiler-Albring, state minister in the German Foreign Ministry.