Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, brought back yesterday a package on the complex issue that gives few of the safeguards that Britain had initially sought. But if ministers reject the deal Britain could be left isolated and blamed for blocking enlargement of the EU.
Foreign ministers at the talks in northern Greece said the 'take-it-or-leave-it' package had to be agreed by 6pm tomorrow and no further offer would be made. 'There is no 'if not',' one diplomat said. Officials wished their British counterparts the best of luck.
Downing Street was at pains to point out last night that nothing had been agreed, and that further meetings of foreign ministers could follow consideration by the 12 member states. But the formula is unlikely to find favour with the right- wing minority in the Cabinet.
Some diplomats said the proposed deal was worse than what could have been achieved some weeks ago, and could face a rough ride among ministers and MPs.
Mr Hurd said yesterday that there had been movement towards Britain and Spain, her main ally in the crisis, by the majority countries and that he had agreed to nothing during the two days of intensive negotiations. 'It's not something that I put my name to,' he added, emphasising that agreement must come from the Cabinet meeting tomorrow. 'I'm not committed to that, nobody's committed to that,' Mr Hurd said after the informal meeting of foreign ministers. 'I have just said that it will be seriously considered.
'I'm going back to reflect and consult with my colleagues. I've talked to the Prime Minister and he will decide how a collective judgement should be reached.'
Officials were gloomy about the prospects for the agreement gaining acceptance, and other ministers said Mr Hurd had told them he was 'in trouble'. If Mr Hurd tells the Cabinet that the deal is the best they can hope for and that rejection would block enlargement, it could leave him isolated as Britain's negotiator.
Mr Hurd rejected suggestions that he might have to resign: 'I have been operating under a very flexible mandate given me by the Cabinet. I have no problems about that. I have had full support from the Prime Minister and my colleagues.'
The dispute arose because Britain said it would not contemplate allowing the number of votes required in the Council of Ministers to block some EU legislation to rise from 23 to 27 when new member states join the Union.
Spain was on Britain's side, but its support waned at the weekend, isolating Britain. The other states were at odds with the British, and have forced a climb-down. The proposal Mr Hurd will put to the Cabinet concedes the principle of raising the number of blocking votes to 27.
But it permits a group of states to hold up legislation for a 'reasonable period', without specifying the duration. Every other minister underlined that this would not be a permanent delay. And a simple majority of states could overrule it and force a vote.
Although Mr Hurd indicated that he had won concessions on both the substance and form of the safeguards, the package's legal status is unclear; but it is unlikely to be binding in the same way as EU law. It also includes provision for a new round of discussions on reforming the Union to begin between national representatives and members of the European Parliament ahead of the intergovernmental conference set for 1996. The British government has welcomed that.
As backbench Tory MPs opposed to closer European union expressed concern over the proposed deal, Jack Straw, Labour environment spokesman, condemned Mr Major's nationalistic remarks in the Commons last week - saying they illustrated Norman Lamont's dictum in his resignation speech that 'far too many important decisions are made for 36 hours'.
'Mr Major's humiliation this weekend hardly matters . . . our ability properly to defend our national interest has been weakened by this farce,' Mr Straw said.
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