PM threatens go-slow on Europe

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John Major today will open up a new front in the battle over the Europe by warning other EU states that he will go slow on new agreements unless they adhere to Britain's opt-out from the social chapter.

It follows the inconclusive talks yesterday between the Agriculture Minister Douglas Hogg and the European Commissioner, Franz Fischler, over easing the European beef ban.

Mr Major's speech in London today to the Institute of Directors may be seen as an attempt to restore some of the Government's credibility among its Euro-sceptic MPs after being forced to retreat in its war of words over the beef ban.

The Prime Minister will attack Britain's European partners for using health and safety legislation, over which Britain has no veto, to challenge Britain's the social chapter opt-out negotiated at Maastricht.

"If old agreements are to be broken, I cannot see how we can be expected to make new ones," Mr Major will say. It is intended as a clear warning that Britain will not agree to progress in the Inter-Governmental Conference, unless the Commission stops bending the rules on issues such as a statutory 48-hour working week.

His criticism will target a sore point among many Tory MPs, and it will enable Mr Major to counter-attack Labour for being prepared to sign up to the social chapter.

Tony Blair exploited Tory humiliation over the ministerial climb-down on beef yesterday by accusing Mr Major at Prime Minister's Question Time of trying to appease the Tory Euro-sceptics by making threats of action which could not be carried out. Mr Blair said there was "confusion and incompetence" at the heart of the Government's policy on Europe.

The Euro-sceptics made a show of strength in the Commons when 66 Tory MPs voted for an end to the power of the European Court of Justice over British courts. The vote on a backbench bill was intended to show the Government there is growing support among Tory backbenchers for a commitment to renegotiate the Treaty of Rome.

Ian Duncan-Smith, who introduced the bill, said at least 30 ministerial aides supported the move, but were stopped from voting for it by pressure from the Government whips.

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