Danes rescue Maastricht: Ministers prepare to put pressure on the Lords to speed progress of European treaty legislation

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The Independent Online
The Maastricht treaty was rescued from certain death yesterday in Denmark when many voters overcame their objections of last June to back ratification.

The final count showed 56.8 per cent of Danes voted for, with 43.2 per cent against. But some opponents vented their anger by resorting to violence. In the working-class Copenhagen suburb of Noerrebro police fired tear-gas on squatters who had erected barricades, lit bonfires and declared their district an 'EC-free zone'.

A correspondent from Reuters news agency saw two policemen lying injured on the ground. 'It is very violent,' a police spokesman said.

The spotlight over ratification will now switch to Britain. In the Commons tomorrow MPs will debate and vote on the third reading of the treaty legislation. It will then go to the Lords and ministers were preparing last night to put the heat on the Upper House to expedite proceedings. They threatened to keep the Commons sitting until peers had completed their deliberations - well into August if necessary.

John Major told a CBI dinner in London that the sooner Parliament agreed the legislation to ratify the treaty, the better it would be for British business and British jobs.

The Prime Minister urged Parliament to approve ratification speedily - pointing out that the UK would be the last to do so, and that the interests of British business and employment demanded an end to 'the interminable, incomprehensible procedural wrangles'.

However, Tory rebels maintained their defiance. Lord Tebbit told ITN's News at Ten: 'We shall fight all the way through. It's not the first time we've had to fight from a position of slight loneliness.'

Bill Cash, a leader of the Commons dissidents, pledged to fight on: 'Parliament is committing voluntary euthanasia, that is bad for the UK, for Europe and for democracy throughout the world . . . The House of Lords is going to be very unpredictable and there is always the possibility, I would say a very good opportunity, for a referendum to be decided upon in the House of Lords.'

Well-placed sources suggested that if Lord Tebbit and Baroness Thatcher led a successful rearguard action there, MPs would be told they could not rely on any early August holiday bookings. The hope was that MPs would then exert strong pressure on the peers to toe the line.

However, one Whitehall source cast doubt on the ploy last night, suggesting if the war of nerves did not work, both Houses might have to return to the Bill after a summer break. At that stage, and provided the Lords had not managed to pass any amendments, both would debate and vote upon a motion on the Social Chapter - before Royal Assent was sought.

Ministers would prefer that to happen before the recess, wanting to ratify as early as possible. If it was ratified in August, the treaty would take effect from September. With that timetable in mind, government business managers were also prepared to turn the screw on recalcitrant peers if they insisted on 'dragging out' proceedings once the Bill went to the Lords next month.

While there is no procedure under which Lords debate could be guillotined, ministers might well force all- night sittings in a campaign of attrition to wear down opponents.

The European Community will press on with its ambitious project for a single currency by the end of the century, but this still depends on Britain,' Henning Christophersen, Denmark's commissioner for economic affairs, said last night.

'We want to start stage two (of economic union) on 1 January 1994, but we can't do that unless the Maastricht treaty is ratified by all 12 members.'

Jacques Delors, President of the European Commission, said: 'This vote can give a stimulus to the Community to leave behind a period of gloom and inaction, while our continent is shaken by a tragic violence, while it faces many internal problems, especially economic stagnation and unemployment.'

After news of the voting figures, the Danish Foreign Minister, Niels Helveg Petersen, said: 'I am a very happy man, this is good for Denmark, good for Europe and good for Danish political life. I hope the Danish 'yes' will produce a swing back to optimism in the European cause, that it will give a new vigour to European construction, because we need it.'

The result, predicted by polls, was, for most, an anti-climax. In bars and cafes across Copenhagen the widening gap between 'yes' and 'no' ' barely interrupted eating and drinking.

John Smith, the Labour leader, congratulated Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister, on the 'yes' vote and contrasted Danish and British stands on the Social Chapter, saying: 'Unlike the British, the people of Denmark were fortunate enough to be presented with a version of the Maastricht treaty which contained the Social Chapter.'

(Photograph omitted)