CBI redirects its fire on Europe: Michael Harrison examines opposition to EU policies at the employers' annual conference in Harrogate

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THE Confederation of British Industry last night backed away from its attacks on the Government over Europe and redirected its fire towards the European Commission.

Poll results issued on the eve of the CBI's annual conference in Harrogate show widespread opposition to Commission social and agricultural policies and frustration over the slow progress towards a single market. They suggest that Jacques Delors, the president of the Commission, will face a rough ride when he addresses delegates this morning.

After last week's well-publicised outburst from Howard Davies, the CBI's director-general, over the attitude of the Conservative party towards Europe, the leadership of the employers' organisation sought to paper over the apparent rift between business leaders and ministers. Asked whether he had been carpeted over his comments, Mr Davies indicated he had not.

Pressed on his views about the Government's commitment to Europe and the anti-European sentiments voiced by some Cabinet ministers at the Conservative party conference, Mr Davies simply said the CBI recommended the Government to be positive it it wanted to win its arguments in Europe.

It does appear, however, that Sir Michael Angus, the CBI's president and deputy chairman of British Airways, has imposed a three-line whip. Sir Michael praised the European commitment of the Prime Minister and the way he had fought to push the Maastricht Bill through Parliament. The results of the CBI survey, showing support for the eventual creation of a single European currency but scepticism about the timescale, were, he added, 'very much in line with the views of the Government'.

According to the poll of 178 company chairmen and chief executives, only 2 per cent expect Europe to achieve full economic and monetary union by 1999 - the timetable set out in Maastricht. However, eight in 10 continue to favour a single currency in the long term. Some 56 per cent said Britain should postpone any policy decision on the exchange rate mechanism until the future of the system was clearer.

The survey identified completion of the Gatt round as the European Union's top priority in the next 12 months. Business leaders were also concerned about containing social costs and lowering interest rates throughout Europe. More than two- thirds felt that reducing the burden of social legislation was essential, while 91 per cent recommended a cut in the EU's agriculture budget. Sir Michael said: 'These results show that the community needs a fundamental rethink of its approach if it wishes to promote industrial competitiveness. That will require a new policy agenda and a different set of attitudes in Brussels.'

In a separate survey of attitudes towards the single market covering 270 companies, 55 per cent said customer resistance was a barrier to trade, while one-third complained that British business was not competing on a level playing field because of the failure of other member states to enact EU law.

Government plans to revoke a string of safety and worker protection laws through a deregulation Bill, to be introduced in this week's Queen's Speech, were defended yesterday by business leaders.

The Labour party and the trade unions have warned that the move could turn the shopfloors of British industry into 'killing fields'. But Mr Davies said: 'We think that is completely wrong. These deregulation measures would not cause us any difficulty at all. We do not believe they would be dangerous to health and safety in any way.'

Much of the legislation likely to be revoked had 'passed its sell-by date', Mr Davies added. The Bill is one of three to be introduced in the next parliamentary session by Michael Heseltine, President of the Board of Trade. The other two concern the privatisation of British Coal and reform of the trademarks system.

Mr Heseltine will address the conference today on the theme of industry-government partnership.

(Photograph omitted)