Paris and Bonn plan to brush Britain aside

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Germany and France yesterday unveiled a joint blueprint for Europe aimed at speeding up integration among a hard core of European Union members by sidelining Britain.

The document, thrashed out by their foreign ministers, Herve de Charette and Klaus Kinkel, is set to raise a storm when it is submitted to the Inter-governmental Conference next Monday. And it will infuriate the members of James Goldsmith's Referendum Party, gathering in Brighton today.

According to the German foreign ministry, the central message of the "discussion paper" is that "in future, Europe will no longer have to progress at the speed of the slowest ship". Britain will be correct in recognising herself in that nautical reference, a Bonn official admitted. The plan is a direct consequence of unhappiness in France and Germany that Britain has consistently blocked moves to greater European unity.

Paris and Bonn are proposing a change in the Maastricht treaty which would allow member states in the vanguard of European integration to form cliques. The plan is rather similar to the way that European Monetary Union will proceed only with those willing and able to participate. The "ins" would thus be able to co-ordinate their policies more closely, whilst the "outs" would eventually be marginalised in key areas.

The new slogan will be "enhanced co-operation", to be inserted into the amended treaty next year. The main principles are:

t The aim is a deepening of European union using the existing institutional framework.

t No member state will be allowed to veto the formation of such a group.

t No EU member state which wants and is able to participate can be excluded.

t The groups will strive for the highest possible number of participants.

The final decision about forming such a clique will lie with the Council of Ministers, where EU member states are each represented, which will also lay down the ground rules for co-operation. The details of the procedure are still to be worked out, the document says in a footnote.

The blueprint's release shows that both France and Germany are intent on keeping up the momentum. A two-speed Europe would ensure that - whatever happens in Britain's general election next year - progress on reform can be maintained.

The EU has already accumulated a series of mini-groups moving towards union at different speeds. The Schengen group co-ordinates border controls and immigration, while the Western European Union deals with defence, for instance. But the new initiative would formalise this and ensure that countries such as Britain could no longer hold back the more enthusiastic nations.

The co-ordination of activities within these groups would be carried out by the European Commission, while the European Parliament would be given an "appropriate role". The commission would have the right to prevent such groups forming, and ensure that the "ins" did not discriminate against the "outs". The European Court of Justice would supervise the legality of such arrangements.

The most controversial area in this brave new world is foreign and security policy. The document calls for "enhanced co-operation" in defence, intended to "deepen European unity". However, disagreements between Bonn and Paris over this issue are highlighted by the absence of any detail. Germany is a fervent supporter of Nato, while France has high ambitions for the Western European Union. The blueprint gives a nod to joint weapons projects, but future forms of co-operation are to be "spelt out later".

The financing of group activities is left vague. In defence and foreign policy, the groups would get "all or some" of their money from the community budget.

France and Germany also see themselves huddling together with like-minded states over interior affairs and justice. Again, the two countries have widely differing ambitions, and detail is thin. Germany would like its policemen to roam the continent, France wants to keep co-operation to a minimum.