Denmark throws a lifeline on Maastricht treaty

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THE MAASTRICHT treaty was thrown a lifeline yesterday as Denmark produced a long-awaited plan to salvage the agreement in a fresh referendum. The Danish plan leaves the fate of the treaty squarely in the hands of the British Parliament.

The Danish proposal will be a godsend to John Major, considerably assisting him in his efforts to get the Maastricht treaty legislation back before the Commons next month.

But the silver lining for the Prime Minister will prove something of a cloud for Labour - because the lack of a definitive Danish proposal had been one of the pretexts for their planned vote against the Government in the Commons next week.

In last month's emergency Commons debate on Black Wednesday, Mr Major volunteered: 'It would not make sense to bring the Maastricht Bill back to the House of Commons before we know clearly what Danish intentions are.'

Labour frontbenchers have been saying since last week that Mr Major's precondition had not been met. Now, it has.

But Mr Major still has to overcome one other hurdle he laid down last month - promising that the Maastricht legislation would not go back to the House until a 'settled order' of subsidiarity had been agreed and 'put in place'. In doing that, Mr Major has trapped himself: the EC heads of government will not agree a deal on subsidiarity until Mr Major gives the go-ahead for ratification; Mr Major has promised the Commons that ratification will not recommence until subsidiarity has been agreed.

The Maastricht crisis began when the treaty was rejected in Denmark's June referendum and Copenhagen's plan to salvage it had been expected. Denmark wants opt-outs from a single European currency and a future common defence. Neither will cause problems, since the first is already provided for in the treaty and the second is entirely dependent on future agreements between EC governments.

The Danish blueprint also calls for safeguards over common European citizenship and policy on immigration and crime. Citizenship is minimally specified in the treaty, and this will cause few problems to other governments. Legal co-operation is only a framework in the treaty, to be filled in later by agreement.

Announcing the plan, Poul Schluter, Denmark's Prime Minister, said it would provide all of the safeguards that the country needed. 'You could say we are locking the door in the areas in which we don't want to be obliged to co-operate, but we are keeping the key in our pocket and we will see what the future will hold,' he said last night.

The plan is the absolute minimum Denmark could have demanded. But the fact that seven of Denmark's eight parties have agreed to it indicates that when it is put to the population in a fresh referendum - some time next year - it stands a good chance of success.

Though the plan will assist the British government, it also carries a grave risk. Ministers from other EC governments have frequently accused Britain of hiding behind Denmark's skirts. After last night, that is no longer possible. The success or failure of the Maastricht treaty now rests squarely on Mr Major's shoulders.

Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, Denmark's Foreign Minister, will tour European capitals to explain the plan. It has the merit for European governments of requiring no amendment to the treaty, and fits squarely with the formula laid out since June for putting Denmark back into the Maastricht jigsaw.

But no deal can be tied up before December's Edinburgh summit. It will be Britain's task to accommodate Denmark while handling the domestic debate.

Kohl's warning, page 10