Hurd set to offer key EU `improvements'

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The Independent Online
The Government will seek to draw up improvements to all key European Union institutions - including the commission and the court - in the run-up to the 1996 summit on revising the Maastricht treaty.

The assurance is expected today from Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, in a speech brushing aside reports of a Cabinet split, with a pledge that the Government has rejected the idea that power has to slip inexorably to Brussels if Europe is to succeed. Ways of improving the operation of the Council of Ministers, the European Commission, the European Parliament and the European Court are likely to be turned into practical proposals by the summer.

Jeremy Hanley, the Tory party chairman, likewise emphasised last night that all issues concerning Britain's membership of the EU were potential subjects for negotiation at the conference table.

Mr Hanley was speaking after the Cabinet's Defence and Overseas Policy (Europe) Committee agreed on Thursday to consider possible ways of regaining power from the European Commission and Court of Justice.

He told the Independent: "The Cabinet committee will now be considering all of the aspects of our membership - remembering that the inter-governmental conference is about changing the treaty."

He added: "The whole Cabinet will be able to discuss all these matters on a regular basis. The whole range of policy issues will be considered."

The decision to explore means of "repatriating" powers from Brussels to Britain is the most dramatic step yet taken by an increasingly Euro-sceptical government. It could well emerge as the key issue in the eventual return to the party fold of the nine back-bench Euro-rebels who had the whip withdrawn. Loss of British sovereignty is their chief complaint.

Mr Hanley's reference to the involvement of the entire Cabinet also raises a not unimportant issue for the Euro-rebels. They are angry that two of the five more Euro-sceptical Cabinet members, Peter Lilley, Secretary of State for Social Security, and Jonathan Aitken, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, have been excluded from the committee.

John Wilkinson, one of the nine and MP for Ruislip-Northwood, said yesterday: "That is a grave deficiency." He also made clear yesterday that to return to the fold he would have to be invited back, in a "proper, civilised and gentlemanly manner".

John Major, meanwhile, dismissed as a "travesty" a report yesterday suggesting that the committee had shelved a paper by Mr Hurd on the negotiating position to be taken as the 1996 conference approached.

One option included in Mr Hurd's paper, drawn up with Foreign Office officials, had warned of the risks of approaching with all guns blazing only to be knocked back, as was the case with the qualified majority voting row. The meeting backed the option oftaking a much more robust stance.

Mr Hurd is expected to say in today's speech that the committee endorsed a "hard-headed and realistic approach" which was recommended by him.