Major acclaims subsidiarity: British EC presidency launched with stress on sovereignty - Labour cools on referendum

BRITAIN launched its presidency of the European Community yesterday by vowing to make the much-vaunted concept of subsidiarity 'a way of life'.

John Major, looking jubilant as he sat next to a subdued Jacques Delors, told his first presidency press conference in London: 'A large number of matters lie on the table.' He listed opening talks to enlarge EC membership, settling future EC finances, completing the Uruguay round of the Gatt world trade talks and, finally, looking at 'the way ahead to entrench subsidiarity as a way of life in the Community'.

Mr Delors, whose renewed term as President of the Commission was recently endorsed by Britain and whose main concern now is to see the Maastricht treaty ratified by member states, went out of his way to explain that he and his Commission were not out to encroach on the sovereignty of individual states. The most important thing for him was not 'to appear as powerful. The most important is to be useful, useful for the Community. That's all.'

Subsidiarity, the principle of letting individual states retain decision-making powers wherever possible, has been increasingly picked up by the Government as the argument with which to convince the public and Parliament that Maastricht is a good thing. The treaty, they argue, safeguards that principle.

The prospects for its ratification improved yesterday as Tory rebels appeared unlikely to win Labour's support in defeating it. This month's election of John Smith as Labour leader is expected to bring a further change of Opposition attitude towards a treaty referendum - dashing Tory rebels' hopes that they might yet join forces with Labour to defeat the Government.

Last November, Neil Kinnock rejected a referendum as an abdication of political leadership amounting to 'a dilemma by-pass'. Last month he changed tack, saying it would be 'foolish' to rule it out. Mr Smith has taken a more cautious line, saying: 'I remain to be persuaded about the validity of a referendum in these circumstances.'

But he is much more robust in private, according to his leadership campaign supporters. It was said yesterday that Mr Smith would oppose a referendum, arguing it would serve only to present Labour with the further dilemma of deciding whether to campaign for or against Maastricht. Labour officially abstained in the Commons vote on the European Communities (Amendment) Bill's second reading in May.

Despite differences between London and Brussels, Mr Delors said yesterday that he had 'no intention of entering the internal debate in Great Britain. It should be possible to work in a frank and friendly way. The Commission knows its duty: it is a duty to help the Community make progress; no more.'

While Mr Smith is taking a 'wait- and-see' line on the legislation he believes Tory whips will eventually manage to bully, cajole and seduce enough rebels back into line to get a Commons majority, albeit with the support of Liberal Democrat and nationalist MPs.

It became clear this week that the Government feels it has successfully tamed Mr Delors, the favoured scapegoat of the Tory rebels: 'He knows the Commission has spent too much time getting involved in detail,' said a senior government source. 'He is not able to control all his colleagues. He wants greater control by the Commission on big matters, but Maastricht doesn't give him that.' European diplomats said Mr Delors, who held talks with Mr Major at 10 Downing Street yesterday morning, was deliberately adopting a subdued tone. 'He was low-key. Perhaps a bit too much. It may prove to be a better idea to counter-attack,' one said.

European sources warned that many conficts lay ahead over where and how subsidiarity should be applied. They said Mr Delors is privately worried that Britain will use the six months of its presidency to change the course of European union drastically. 'He is worried that the British will unravel the Community structures,' said a Brussels source. 'They say they want the Maastricht treaty, but I'm not sure they want the same Maastricht as others. So far the British have not given examples of all of what they expect subsidiarity to apply to. There will be a hard fight ahead over these examples. Take the 48-hour week, for instance. If you say this is a social tradition you have a right to maintain, are you then the sort of people who say child labour is a social tradition you have a right to maintain?'

A British official said such fears were premature. 'We haven't begun those discussions yet.'

Ashdown backs Major, page 9

What subsidiarity is, page 10

Letters, page 26

Matthew Symonds, page 27

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