Howard splits Cabinet on Europe

Anti-Brussels move stands in sharp contrast to words of reason by the Chancellor
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The Independent Online
Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, has divided the Cabinet by circulating a far-reaching and controversial proposal to reduce the impact of European law in Britain.

It is even more radical than his call yesterday for the "repatriation" of powers from Brussels. He reignited conflict in the upper reaches of the Tory party and cast himself as the Cabinet's leading Euro-sceptic by proposing Britain might withdraw from "elements" of some European Union treaties.

Law officers and pro-European ministers are opposing a paper, circulated to John Major and ministers, proposing to amend the 1972 European Communities Act to remove the rights of British courts to enforce European legislation. If accepted, it could also reduce the influence of the European Court of Justice (ECJ), which Mr Howard attacked for "increasing its competence and adopting its own political agenda". Mr Howard's move comes as the Government is preparing to use the ECJ to try to remove the beef ban.

His speech contrasted with one made by the Chancellor, Kenneth Clarke, who attacked Euro-sceptics and derided the idea that Britain could become a "Switzerland with nuclear weapons, stranded on the sidelines of world politics ... The European Union is not an alternative to national prosperity and political success. It is a vehicle towards prosperity and success, because outside Europe our economic weight and political voice would be much diminished."

Labour immediately seized on the speech by Mr Howard as a sign that he was promoting himself as a future leadership candidate on the Tory right. In it, he quoted the remark by the former All Souls warden Sir Patrick Neill QC that a "court with a mission is a menace. A supreme court with a mission is a tyranny".

Arguing for "variable geometry", under which some member-states would draw closer while others would not, Mr Howard told the European Research Group, chaired by the Maastricht rebel Michael Spicer: "This may indeed mean that some states would be able to repatriate powers which are currently exercised by Brussels." For the first time, Mr Howard proposed that the British opt-out from the Social Chapter meant "some countries may wish to withdraw from elements of the treaties". Without saying which, he added: "The principle of subsidiarity may well offer scope for that to be achieved."

It was pointed out last night that the White Paper on the EU Inter- Governmental Conference by Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, raises the possibility of deleting some treaty clauses. Mr Howard's strongly Euro-sceptic call for powers to be taken back from the EU did not mention his proposal to amend the Act, because it is still being discussed within the Cabinet. Mr Howard's proposal was briefly given fresh impetus earlier this week, when he pointed out that if it was enacted rapidly, it could prevent the Government from being challenged successfully in British courts if it decided to keep out imports from the EU in retaliation.