MPs may consider treaty next month

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EUROPE'S heads of government yesterday sought to put momentum back behind the Maastricht treaty, but their efforts were overshadowed by the problems of the British government.

A government source gave an indication at a press briefing in Birmingham that the treaty legislation could be returned to the Commons next month. It had been thought the European Communities (Amendment) Bill would not go back to the Commons for its protracted committee-stage consideration until December, or early January. The source, replying to a question on the relative timing of the completion of a subsidiarity package for the treaty and the Commons' completion of legislation, said: 'It may well be that (the ratification process) is not completed by the end of the year.'

There would be no chance of the legislation clearing the Commons before the end of the year - unless at least a clear month had been given to it. The official statement suggested a surprise, early return of the Bill.

Work continued to salvage the Maastricht treaty, by explaining it to Europe's citizens, particularly those in Britain. The Twelve pledged to create a Community that was closer to its citizens, without going into too much detail as to how. The summit had been billed as a confidence-building exercise, but with Mr Major so obviously struggling, the effect may have been precisely the reverse. With miners demonstrating outside and dark political rumours circulating through the conference centre, the air of crisis was not dissolved by vague expressions of EC solidarity.

In a declaration the Twelve said 'centralisation is not the right road to greater unity. It is for each member state to decide how its power should be exercised domestically.' The principle of subsidiarity was broadly defined as being that 'action at the Community level should happen only when indispensable'. But officials emphasised that most of the work on bringing subsidiarity to life would have to wait until the Edinburgh summit in December.

The meeting had been called to discuss the economic and political turmoil that has afflicted all Europe in past months. But discussion of monetary issues was limited to presentations by Spain and Italy, and a very generally worded commitment to economic stability. The leaders expressed hopes for a settlement in the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade talks (Gatt).

Discussions on this topic continue today when Frans Andriessen, the EC's trade commissioner, meets Carla Hills, the US Trade Representative, in Toronto. When pressed as to how the EC deliberations related to Britain's economic crisis, British officials pointed to the Gatt talks. They also said that the crisis of political confidence in the EC had contributed to the economic malaise.

Openness and transparency in EC decision-making was another theme at the summit. But plans to have an open session with television cameras present failed, since other nations considered that a publicity gimmick. Instead, the leaders met in their customary solitude, with little indication of what was going on behind closed doors.

The Twelve did announce that they would speed up assistance to the former Yugoslavia. They said in a declaration that E213m ( pounds 170m) is ready for immediate disbursement, and called on member states to provide further staff and resources.

Summit reports, page 8