That would open the way for the final, Third Reading of the legislation by the Commons in late April or early May, followed by Lords consideration and Royal Assent by July at the very latest.
The move follows pressure at yesterday's Edinburgh summit on Britain and Denmark - the EC's two laggards - to move ahead or risk being left behind. Belgium and Spain last night tabled a proposal for all states to conclude ratification by 1 July, sharply raising the stakes.
Though British officials denied yesterday that the matter had been raised by heads of government, German officials said that Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, had pressed for every EC state to ratify by July. No ultimatum was made, but with several European leaders warning that they will press ahead without Britain and Denmark, the threat of a two-speed Europe is clearly being raised again.
Pressure is also coming from the Foreign Office, which was aghast at Mr Major's decision to delay ratification.
The proposal to bring forward British ratification will upset Conservative critics of the Bill, because of the expectation - fuelled by a promise made by Mr Major during last month's Commons vote on Maastricht - that Royal Assent might be delayed until the autumn.
Dieter Vogel, the spokesman for Chancellor Kohl, said yesterday: 'It is not just friendly banter when the German government says it wants ratification in all member states to be completed by mid-year.
'I do not want to utter vile threats as to what could happen, but I get the impression from this morning's discussions that Germany is not alone in saying we cannot wait for ever.'
British officials last night attacked German statements on ratification as 'rather irrelevant comments'. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, said that Klaus Kinkel, his German opposite number, was talking 'nonsense'.
But it was clear the Germans were not alone. Piet Dankert, the Dutch minister for Europe, said: 'If the Danes say they can do it with a referendum by July, I do not see why the British would need a longer time.'
Told of the mid-year deadline, a British official said: 'That's impossible. They know we cannot do it by then.'
But that was not the view of a more senior source, who told the Independent that if a Danish deal was secured today, EC leaders would expect Poul Schluter, the Danish Prime Minister, to issue an early statement of intent on the timing of the second referendum that could pave the way for earlier than expected ratification at Westminster.
It had been expected that the Danish vote would not be held until May. But there is now a build-up of pressure for Mr Schluter to go for March, with the Germans and the French again leading the pack. 'We have all bent over backwards to help the Danes,' one British source said. 'The least they can do is get a move on.'
The same source accepted that Mr Major was under pressure to renege on his November commitment to the Commons when he said: 'The present intention of the Danes is to hold a referendum in May, and given the committee timetable we have in mind, and the full discussion we need, we will need to take the Third Reading after that date in May.'
One British source preferred to stress the difficulties of overcoming the Danish hurdle in Edinburgh yesterday. 'We are walking a tightrope, between what the EC council will accept, and what the Danish people will say 'yes' to,' he said. 'It makes economics look very easy.'
The main obstacle to a Danish deal continued to be the nature of the guarantee that is offered to the Danish people before a second referendum. The EC's more federalist states were balking at the legally binding guarantee offered by Britain. They emphasised that neither the detail of the Maastricht treaty nor its aims could be compromised, and said they feared a binding agreement would require further ratification.
Mr Major looks set to have several achievements from Edinburgh to advance his case in the Commons. A modest European growth initiative is to be announced today, including more EC funds for infrastructure development and small businesses.
The third important aspect of the summit, the future financing of the Community, was still hanging by a thread. Despite new British proposals that would increase the cash available to the poor nations of the EC, Spain continued to press for more. Negotiators were working through the night on the budget and the Danish question.
The issue of the British rebate was raised by the Netherlands, which described it as 'a permanent handicap'.
Amid market rumours that France and Denmark were preparing to quit the European exchange rate mechanism, the Banque de France and the Bundesbank intervened to prevent the franc hitting its ERM floor.
Pact to defend franc, page 19
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