Major throws down gauntlet to Brussels

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The Independent Online
John Major yesterday issued a direct challenge to Brussels power, with a macho move that could leave him battling in splendid isolation for a return of British sovereignty in the run-up to the next election.

A Foreign Office source said last night that the formal British proposal - to curb some of the "more intrusive aspects" of European legislation - was expected to get the backing of the Germans.

But Brussels sources said there was no chance of European leaders reopening the "hornets' nest" of the power of the European Commission, already defined in the Maastricht treaty. The European Commissioner, Marcelino Oreja, told the Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee only last month that "the large majority of members states" wanted matters to stay as they were.

That would leave Mr Major fighting defiantly in defence of British interests in at least two Dublin summits, in October and December, with more battles to be fought before an expected general election in May.

The immediate Westminster speculation was that Mr Major was "taking on" Brussels in a calculated attempt to unite his own party, and outflank Tony Blair as the "puppet of Brussels".

However, any hope of Tory unity was immediately dashed by Richard Shepherd, one of the diehard Conservative Euro-sceptics, who told The Independent: "The Government is trimming at the edges. We are the supplicants in all this. We are trying to get back powers that we have already given to the Community ... If this is not just a sop, what will we do then? Go into the election with a demand for renegotiation of the treaties? I fear this is just a ploy to get us through to the election. I'd bet a pound to a penny they won't get anywhere."

Certainly, given its tough tone, it would be remarkable if the challenge was accepted.

Delivered in a low-key Foreign Office statement on a new "Protocol on Subsidiarity", ministers want it discussed as part of the inter-governmental talks on the future of the European Union - the next stage of the Maastricht process.

The protocol - which would become legally binding, if accepted - will get its first airing at a meeting of ministers and officials in Brussels next week. However, London has already made its intentions clear. It wants the new protocol to be used as precision weapon against the European Commission - allowing detailed challenges to be launched in the European Court of Justice.