Britain won the right yesterday to operate a new European credit card- style driving licence as a national identity card.
EU transport ministers endorsed the voluntary introduction of a uniform plastic licence for the 15-member states from July 1996. But Britain requested that the nationality of the bearer should be displayed on the front of the card alongside a photograph, and other data such as name, date of birth, and licence expiry date.
A number of other states voiced hostility to the British plan because of the implications for civil liberties, but agreed to a compromise which allows governments to include nationality or other "non-motoring" information - for example a national insurance number or the fact that the driver is an organ donor - on the back of the card.
They insisted, however, that the inclusion of nationality or other information should be conditional on the written consent of the licence holder.
Then European Transport Commissioner Neil Kinnock, pre-empting charges that Brussels was imposing identity cards on Britain through the back door, issued a statement stressing that the primary function of the card is a driving licence.
British officials denied that yesterday's agreement brings closer the introduction of compulsory identity papers. It simply left open the possibility of operating a dual-function licence/ID card which was one of six options outlined in a Home Office Green Paper last May.
Under existing European directives driving licences do not identify the holder's nationality, so a dual-function card would have been impossible without yesterday's compromise. "If we decide to pursue the introduction of identity cards in Britain, this is now one of the options open to us," a British official said
The new-style licence will be optional for member states but most, including Britain, are enthusiastic about switching from the existing pink paper version. The EU's 12 gold stars on a blue background will adorn the card, and the back will carry symbols of the various vehicle categories to allow instant recognition throughout the member states.
Earlier plans for the inclusion of a microchip carrying additional information which could be electronically read by police have been scrapped.
t At Westminster, Graham Allen, Labour's transport spokesman, claimed the decision was a defeat for the Home Secretary Michael Howard, writes John Rentoul.
"This looks like sleight of hand - the Tories were trying to amend an EU proposal to create the basis for introducing a UK identity card by the back door," he said.
He added that the decision meant Mr Howard could not bring in the weakest of his plans for what would effectively be an ID card for Britain.