Major seeks middle way for Europe: Conference told of doubts over Community's role in wake of Cold War

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JOHN MAJOR yesterday reaffirmed his quest for the 'middle way' in the great European wrangle, denouncing extremist critics on both sides of the debate.

The Prime Minister conceded at yesterday's London conference to mark the UK's presidency of the European Community, that a combined Danish rejection and French 'no' in the 20 September referendum would kill the Maastricht treaty. Then he turned on critics in his own party and on followers of the Jacques Delors vision of a united Europe.

Mr Major declared he wanted to break free of the 'extremes of views' that so often characterised the European debate. 'Such extremes misread and damage a true judgement of where Europe's interests lie,' he said.

The painstakingly constructed speech that, according to Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, made Mr Major a European 'at last' was met with a barrage of calls from anti-Maastricht Tory rebels for a White Paper and a referendum - a concept decisively rejected by the Prime Minister yesterday - and for renegotiation of the treaty.

In the only concession to the views of Baroness Thatcher and her followers, Mr Major admitted that the Community's founders had underestimated the durability of 'national self-interest, national identity and national pride'. The Community must show these fears were 'phantoms'. The reality was that no nation's identity would ever be lost.

The Prime Minister was immediately challenged by Bill Cash, the anti-Maastricht Tory backbencher. In a reference to the treaty's central banking arrangements, he said: 'I do not think there is anything damaging in highlighting the lack of democratic accountability contained in this treaty.'

In common with Mr Delors later in the day, Mr Major emphasised wider European issues. The treaty was 'vital' but was part of a bigger agenda that included completion of the single market, financing, links with Eastern and Central Europe and enlargement of the Community.

Mr Major said economic and monetary union had already been hotly debated in Britain. The European exchange rate mechanism, he warned his detractors, would continue successfully to 'work with the grain of the market', whatever happened to the Maastricht treaty.

Michael Spicer, another backbench Conservative dissident, demanded renegotiation of the Treaty of Rome to remove the European Commission's 'law- making capacity' and an Act of Parliament guaranteeing the sovereignty of the British Parliament.

Anticipating such criticisms, Mr Major said states surrendered pieces of their sovereignty in exchange for a gain in the effective influence of every Community member state. The Maastricht treaty also enshrined two 'very important ideas' - scrapping 'overbearing' legislation and recognition that Community law was not needed on every issue to make states work together. 'This is a revolutionary change,' he said.

Major's speech, page 6

Leading article, page 22

Lawrence Freedman, page 23

Pound slips again, page 24