Major faces new civil war over Europe: EU expansion deadlocked as Tory right insists Britain must retain voting power

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The Independent Online
John Major and Douglas Hurd were last night facing an increasingly stark choice between a deep rift with the rest of Europe and a revival of the civil war within the Tory party that threatened the Government's survival during the passage of the Maastricht Bill last year.

As European Union foreign ministers broke up in Brussels without a deal on voting rights in the EU's Council of Ministers, Britain came under attack from its European partners and the Government drew fire from Tory MPs.

At Westminster, Tory MPs opposed to further European integration said they were gaining support in the party's mainstream for their tough stance opposing compromise. Leading right- wing backbenchers sought to pre-empt any attempt by Mr Hurd to turn what they fear could be an unofficial understanding reached at last night's talks into a government-backed compromise.

One prominent ex-Cabinet minister on the Tory right insisted, after hearing the outcome of the talks, that a delay to enlargement was preferable to a compromise which would dilute the powers of a minority to block unacceptable European legislation. 'Any concession would undermine our attempts to present ourselves as wanting a more independent Britain in Europe during the European elections,' he insisted.

The mounting strife within the party came after Germany had intervened to broker a deal between Britain and its European partners to try to head off a damaging crisis. 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. 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 German 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'.

The Foreign Secretary told colleagues in Brussels that he could not accept changes to reflect the entry of new members if those changes made it harder for Britain to block legislation.

A compromise on the table last night would raise the size of the blocking minority 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 next Tuesday.

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 maintaining Britain's voting rights, 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.

Time is running out if the four countries are to be in the EU by the agreed date - 1 January 1995. Finland, Sweden and Austria have reached agreement on membership, and last night a compromise on fish was hammered out allowing Norway to conclude negotiations.

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