Major fears fatal damage to EU

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The Independent Online
John Major warned the Commons yesterday that it could inflict "fatal" damage on the European Union, and British membership, if the wrong decisions were taken on the single currency.

Walking a political tightrope between the Europhiles and Euro-sceptics within his own party - in advance of a parliamentary statement on BSE, and a debate on European fisheries policy - the Prime Minister struck a note of menace in a statement on the weekend EU summit in Dublin.

Talking up the threats faced at June's Amsterdam summit - after the next election - Mr Major said the EU was approaching some "historic decisions" over the next 18 months. Those decisions extended beyond the single currency to the questions of political development being considered by the inter- governmental conference. "The choices made will determine not only the success and stability of Europe as a whole, but Britain's relationship with it," Mr Major said.

Shadow Foreign Secretary Robin Cook last night challenged Mr Major to clarify that hint, after Downing Street sources were alleged to have briefed newspapers that he was trying "to put Britain's withdrawal from the European Union on to the agenda".

But the calculated hint of possible retrenchment, if not withdrawal, was later clarified by Mr Major, who told Salisbury Tory MP Robert Key that withdrawal was a delusion. "Those people who peddle that delusion are certainly not considering what the British national interest would be, or what the implications of leaving the European Union would be," he said.

Mr Major also told David Wilshire, the Euro-sceptic Tory MP for Spelthorne, that there was no question of disengagement at a time when Europe faced the most vital question on the single currency.

"Our input into that decision may have a material impact upon whether the whole prospect goes ahead or not, if the criteria are wrong," he said. "And if it goes ahead in the wrong circumstances, I think the damage to our membership of the European Union and the European Union itself might well be fatal."

Mr Major also returned to the attack against Tony Blair, who is being portrayed by the Tories as someone who would sell out British interests. The Labour leader baited Mr Major as a Prime Minister who was afraid of staging a Commons vote on the single currency, and as the leader of a government that had incompetently handled the BSE crisis. But the Prime Minister said of Mr Blair: "If he follows the policies he has advocated so far, the Amsterdam summit would be a Dutch auction of British sovereignty."

Opening the fisheries debate, agriculture minister Tony Baldry promised a tough stance on Europe in an attempt to ward off a threatened Commons defeat. Mr Baldry said he would press for changes to curb quota-hopping - in which foreign firms buy up British fishing quotas - at a meeting of European ministers later this week.

He also promised to review the Government's approach to European rules which favour fishermen in the Irish Republic at the expense of those in the North. The system has angered Ulster Unionists, on whose support the Government's majority now depends.

"I don't think there is any disagreement in this House that the Common Fisheries Policy is not working as it was intended," Mr Baldry said.