Lib-Dems shift pro-Euro focus

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The Independent Online

Political Correspondent

The Liberal Democrats leadership has signalled a shift of emphasis in its pro-European position with a proposal to set conditions for the grant of greater power to the European Parliament.

In a distinct hint of Euro-realism from Britain's most fervent pro-European party, a discussion paper for next month's autumn conference says that while the Council of Ministers wields too much power, enlarged powers for the Parliament must be offset by greater links with national parliaments. "There could be much greater interaction between the European and national parliaments including the establishment of joint policy committees as appropriate," it says.

Malcolm Bruce, the party's Treasury spokesman, will also signal a new realism over European monetary union in a speech today conceding that a single currency might not be achievable until 2009, with 2003 the earliest possible date. A party spokesman said 2003 was becoming a widely-accepted earliest date, while Mr Bruce will argue that it is better to take time to get the process right.

Both developments are bound to be seized on by Conservative Euro-sceptics as early signs of a retreat over Europe. Liberal Democrat sources insisted yesterday that the party was still far and away the most pro-European.

But while the conference paper, drawn up by Charles Kennedy, the spokesman on European affairs, backs the European Parliament having equal legislative rights to the Council, which currently conducts all its sessions and votes in closed session, it says that a "gradual and progressive extension of the co-decision procedure has to be set alongside the varying extents to which existing national parliaments enjoy adequate scrutiny over European legislation".

It adds that the present absence of a uniform - and proportional - voting system for the Parliament "fails to give an accurate reflection of domestic political opinion at European as much as any other level".

The suggestion in the paper, which is not due to pass into party policy until next year's spring conference, none the less amounts to a clear shift of emphasis in the Liberal Democrat stance. "We must be realistic about Europe and what people in Britain want," said a party source. "This is a realistic way forward for making the European Parliament more accountable."

The paper, intended as a model for a policy paper in the run-up to next year's Inter-Governmental Conference on the future of the European Union, also concedes the need for clearer arguments for increasing qualified majority voting. It says the "was used as a weapon against us by our opponents in the 1994 European election campaign. For the IGC we must be specific and self-disciplined in our case for more QMV". The national veto should be retained in "certain sensitive areas, for example the question of border controls, the decision to issue identity cards or the committing of national forces".