The Prime Minister used a lecture at Leiden University in the Netherlands to launch his first counter-offensive against the evolving concept of an inner Europe by rejecting outright a Union 'in which some would be more equal than others'.
But at the same time he implicitly underlined the deep differences over the direction of the EU between Britain and some of her most powerful partners by calling for a 'flexible' Europe and warning that 'if we try to force all European countries into the same mould we shall end up cracking that mould.'
Mr Major stressed the importance of developing co-operation on foreign policy, defence, home affairs and justice - none of which depends on EU institutions. He said: 'They enable Europe to operate through co-operation and not compulsion in areas that are hugely sensitive to the national interest. Britain wants to see more energy put into them.'
Mr Major's lecture contrasted with the stance adopted yesterday by Chancellor Helmut Kohl. Although Mr Kohl said a discussion paper on a two-speed Europe, produced by his CDU party last week, was not official policy, he declared Germany remained committed to rapid progress towards political as well as economic union in Europe. 'We absolutely do not want the slowest ship to decide the pace of the convoy,' he said.
In the one fresh announcement in his speech, the Prime Minister said the Government would work on proposals to forge two-way links between members of the European Parliament and British MPs, for example, by allowing the former to take part in the scrutiny of European legislation in Westminster.
The Leiden lecture was Mr Major's most ambitious attempt to reconcile the Government's desire to choose which areas of policy it wants to participate fully in, while retaining Britain's status as one of the EU's influential members.
Mr Major vigorously dismissed the 'ludicrous' caricature of Britain pitted against its 11 partners. He said it was 'perfectly healthy' for EU members to integrate more closely or more quickly in 'certain areas' - he cited the British and Danish opting out from monetary union agreed at Maastricht. But he added that 'the corollary is that no member state should be excluded from an area of policy in which it wants and is qualified to participate'.
He added: 'I see a real danger in talk of a hard core, inner and outer circles, a two-tier Europe. . . There is not, and never should be, an exclusive hard core either of countries or of policies.
Going further than before in laying out his agenda for the 1996 inter-governmental conference on the future of EU institutions, Mr Major identified as priorities wholesale reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, curbs of some Commission powers and reform of the qualified voting system.
And in terms which carried an echo of Lady Thatcher's Bruges speech in 1988, he emphasised the importance of the 'nation states' and was dismissive of the suggestion that the European Parliament should make up Europe's 'democratic deficit'. The European elections had a 'pitiably low turn-out' and it was 'national parliamentary democracy' which conferred legitimacy on the European Council of Ministers.
While predicting a 'variable geometry' for Europe, Mr Major deliberately avoided the 'multi-speed' formulation he used during the European elections. But Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, claimed last night that 'John Major's bluff had been called' by Franco-German plans for a two-speed Europe. He said he had invented a new concept - 'Europe a la carte.'
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