Preparing the way for next week's make-or-break Commons vote on a resumption of ratification, John Major told a press conference at Lancaster House yesterday that the Community was 'getting back on the path'.
He said the EC now knew how the Danes were going to proceed with ratification. But he has been told by the Foreign Office that the Danish proposals are unlikely to be accepted by other EC states, and the Danish government has been forced to 'swallow' them against its better judgement.
Nevertheless, Mr Major presented the Danish initiative yesterday as the key reason for proceeding with British ratification: 'We will have to proceed as well as the Danes do. We will have to proceed in parallel. Our parliamentary procedures are very lengthy and very complex.'
However, the Foreign Office told Mr Major last week that the Danish memorandum was non-negotiable and was 'unlikely to be acceptable as it stands to member states, and some of them may make this clear. We may therefore have a difficult negotiation ahead of us, which could play awkwardly with the Paving debate and the reintroduction of the Maastricht Bill.' This means that it is not clear how, or whether, Danish reservations will be overcome.
Jack Cunningham, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, said last night: 'The Prime Minister is misleading the country and Parliament in his statements on the Danish document. His remarks lack honesty because he must know from the Foreign Office that what he is saying is not the whole truth about the Danish position and its consequences for the treaty and the agreement of the other Community members.'
The Prime Minister's attempt to conceal Whitehall's guidance will provoke an outcry from Tory and Labour opponents today - as the Cabinet wrestles with the terms of a motion for Wednesday's debate.
The Danish problem was outlined in a Foreign Office note written last week and received by the Independent. The note indicates that Danish demands go much farther than many member states will accept in watering down the treaty. Although there is no mention of renegotiating the agreement, the Danish memorandum says that 'the Danish agreement must be juridically binding for all twelve Community member states.' The Dutch Foreign Minister, Hans van den Broek, said last night the proposals 'amount to renegotiation'.
But Mr Major had said earlier: 'The Danes are not asking for a renegotiation of what is in the Maastricht treaty.'
The Danes want safeguards in four areas before they put the treaty to a second referendum: a common currency, common defence, European citizenship and co-operation on immigration and crime. The last three, the Foreign Office advice says, can probably be handled by 'non- binding declarations.' This will infuriate the Danish opponents of Maastricht, who insist safeguards must be binding.
Asked yesterday whether he was confident that the Danish package would not require renegotiation of Maastricht, Mr Major said that would not be required, but added: 'There's a danger of a semantic misunderstanding.'
However, Denmark does appear to want a similiar opt-out to Britain's on a single currency, not just the clause negotiated at Maastricht. 'The Danes want to convert their protocol into ours,' the Foreign Office says. This implies, if not renegotiation of the treaty, at least another binding agreement between the Twelve. Several EC states will resist that.
But, again, Mr Major said yesterday: 'There is a great will amongst the Community to seek agreement that will enable the Danish to ratify the treaty.'
Talks between Denmark and the other EC states will go ahead before the Edinburgh summit in December. However neither the Danish Prime Minister, Poul Schluter, nor the Foreign Minister, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, backs the proposals, the document notes, because they know other states will not accept them. The Foreign Minister will tour EC capitals to present them, though he 'will not believe in them,' the note says. But the minority Danish government was too weak to head off the proposals, which stem from an opposition document. 'The Danish government have effectively had to swallow as their own proposals a document put forward by the opposition,' the note says.
It appears the Danes and Whitehall want to hold back talks over the issue, which could cause a furious row. 'The Danes would prefer to avoid detailed discussion a douze in Brussels, but some will be unavoidable,' the note adds.
The Foreign Office says: 'If only for our own domestic purposes, we must encourage the Danish government to state its own view on the proposals and to explain how they can be expected to lead to a referendum and ultimate Danish ratification.' Britain has frequently been accused by its EC partners of hiding behind Denmark's skirts.
Labour decided yesterday that it would vote against any attempt to bring the Maastricht legislation back to the Commons in next Wednesday's vote, because Danish intentions were unclear.
Margaret Beckett, Labour's deputy leader, told Radio 4's The World at One: 'It had to be clear not just how the Danish position might be resolved, but whether it would be resolved, what the proposals would be, the shape of it, and so on, and until that was clear and settled it would not be right for the House of Commons to waste its time, possibly, debating the Maastricht Bill'.
But at Question Time, Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, told the Labour front bench: 'There is clarity now about the Danish plans. It is bad luck that the Danes happen to have come clear at this present time but it doesn't let them (Labour) off the hook of their decision.'
Labour is pinning its opposition to an early return of the legislation on a pledge made by the Prime Minister to the Commons last month. He said it would not make sense to proceed until 'we are clear that the Danes have a basis on which they can put the treaty back to their electorate', and a definition was agreed and 'in place' on subsidiarity.
Major's woes, page 2
Letters, page 26
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