GERMANY intervened to broker a deal between Britain and its European partners yesterday to try to head off a damaging crisis.
British objections to procedural change in the European Union's voting rules threatened to cause a deep rift and block EU enlargement, a longstanding British goal. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, told colleagues in Brussels yesterday that he could not accept changes to reflect the entry of new members if these made it harder for Britain to block legislation.
The entry of four small states - Sweden, Finland, Austria and Norway - would weaken the ability of big countries to wield a veto if the rules are shifted. The Government, seeking to prevent an internal Conservative split, had sought to keep the number of votes required to block a measure at 23, equivalent to two big states and one small one.
However, its European partners want to raise that to 27 - two big states and two smaller ones. That is the usual practice when the EU admits new states, but Britain and Spain have objected. 'The UK's view is untenable,' said Niels Helveg Petersen, the Danish Foreign Minister. Hans van den Broek, EU Commissioner for Foreign Affairs, accused Britain of a contradictory policy. 'They have made enlargement an absolute priority, but now they're preventing it.'
The German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, telephoned John Major in a last-minute attempt to persuade Britain to soften its stance ahead of yesterday's meeting. But the Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, said later that the call apparently had no effect. Mr Kinkel added that he had telephoned Mr Hurd and the Spanish Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, before leaving for Brussels. In recent days, said Mr Kinkel, 'really everything has been tried, on the German side'. He expressed scepticism about the likelihood of achieving a breakthrough last night, but said he was 'never ready to give up'.
'Kinkel has been very active,' said a British source. Mr Hurd met his German counterpart twice and a compromise was suggested, diplomats said. Germany has no reservations about changing the rules and is keen to see enlargement go ahead.
A compromise on the table last night would raise the size of the blocking minority - a development opposed by Britain and Spain - but provide some cover for Britain in the form of a non-binding political declaration. However, it remains to be seen whether Mr Hurd could sell that to the Cabinet or the Conservative Party. A final decision is unlikely until 25 March when EU foreign ministers meet in northern Greece.
Without agreement on the voting issue no enlargement deal can be agreed. If Britain had its way, it is unlikely the European Parliament - which has to approve a deal - would accept.
In the Commons there was a gulf last night between the pro-European and anti-European factions of the Conservative Party. John Townend, chairman of the backbench finance committee, while condemning the proposal for 'watering down Britain's rights' insisted he and his colleagues were strongly in favour of enlargement. However, another Thatcherite MP suggested if it was a choice between enlargement and a compromise on voting the first could be sacrificed.
Mr Hurd is due to address a meeting of backbench MPs this evening. One government business manager suggested it would give him the opportunity to 'sell' the outline of any deal before it was finalised.
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