AND COLIN BROWN
John Major yesterday cleared the first hurdle in his uphill struggle to calm his fractious Euro-sceptics by underpinning an ambitious programme of EU reform with a promise to fight the "stupidities" of "ludicrous" Brussels legislation.
But his delicate strategy of seeking to unite the party on Europe between now and the general election with yesterday's White Paper was still threatened last night with deep and continuing tensions within the Cabinet over his plan to promise not to go into a single currency without a referendum.
Ministers yesterday swiftly sought to turn a preliminary European Court of Justice judgement imposing a 48-hour week on the UK to their advantage, by pointing out that reform proposals in the White Paper would, if enacted, make such legislation - and subsequent judgements - impossible.
Reacting to the interim "opinion" of the European Court of Justice's Advocate General rejecting Britain's case that the working hours directive had been imposed unlawfully Mr Major made it clear that he would seek to ditch the proposal at the Inter-Governmental Conference on the EU's future which starts this month.
He told the Commons: " It is precisely because of legislation like this and stupidities like this that that the EU is becoming uncompetitive and losing jobs to other parts of the world. He added: "This sort of legislation is ludicrous and we will continue to tell our partners that this is the case."
The Government is still expected not to risk a full whipped vote when the White Paper is debated next Thursday. But the strength of Mr Major's language - coupled with a tougher than expected programme of EU reform - helped to prevent an all-out Euro-sceptic backlash.
But the next critical problem facing the Prime Minister is to secure the support of Kenneth Clarke, the Chancellor, for his plan to soothe the Euro-sceptics further by promising a referendum if a future Tory Cabinet ever decided to go into a single currency. All the signs in Whitehall last night were that the Chancellor was taking a tougher line than expected against a referendum pledge - provoking fears among some MPs that he might even be prepared to resign if if he fails to get his way.
Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, and the main author of the White Paper, is currently drafting a document for his Cabinet colleagues which spells out the form of a referendum pledge. The other cloud looming beyond the guarded welcome for the White Paper from most Tory MPs was evident scepticism among some on the right over the Government's chances of securing backing from its European partners at the IGC for what Robin Cook, the shadow Foreign Secretary, yesterday called the Government's "wish list" of reforms.
The most menacing sign of this scepticism came with a warning by Jonathan Aitken, the former Chief Secretary to the Treasury, that if Britain failed to secure its goals at the IGC it might have to consider "withdrawal" from the EU. Mr Aitken thus became - after Norman Lamont - the second ex-Cabinet minister publicly to contemplate the possibility of the UK outside the EU. That was briskly dismissed last night by Mr Rifkind, who said the dispute over whether Britain should be in the EU was "behind us".
The White Paper reform programme includes curbs on the Court's powers to uphold directives like that on the 48-hour week which the Government argues should never have been passed under the health and safety category in which Britain has no power of veto. Similarly, the Government is determined to reverse the court decision to vindicate "quota hopping" by spanish fishermen.
Tory MPs welcomed the Euro-sceptic tone of the Prime Minister's remarks and the White Paper setting out the negotiating position for the Government.
Some Tory MPs warned that the Government would face more trouble if it failed to deliver changes on the powers of the European Court to override British employment laws. White Paper details, page 2
Teresa Gorman and Hugh Dykes, page 14
Leading Article, page 15
The White Paper's
t Stopping the European Court of Justice imposing retrospective, or backdated, application of its judgments
t Introducing the principle that a member state should only be liable for damages in cases of serious and manifest breaches of Treaty obligations
t An appeals procedure
t Streamlined procedures for the rapid amendment of EC legislation which has been interpreted by the court in a way never intended by the Council of Ministers
t A speeded-up procedure for time-sensitive cases
t A Treaty provision clarifying the application of subsidiarity in the interpretation of EC law.Reuse content