Shift towards Europe gathers support

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The Independent Online
Liberal Democrat leaders were confident yesterday of growing endorsement from their party for a shift of tone towards Europe which takes account of voter scepticism on deeper EU integration.

Charles Kennedy, the party's spokesman on Europe, is to press ahead with development of the party's general election policy on the EU after presenting a consultative document yesterday which lays heavy emphasis on subsidiarity as well as an extension of majority voting.

In the document, Mr Kennedy insists that at the inter-governmental conference (IGC) in 1996, Europe must "move forward or stagnate, maintain momentum or risk fragmentation".

But he also warns that the Liberal Democrats, the most passionately pro- European of the three main parties, were too vulnerable in the 1994 European elections to "attack from our opponents, too open to misrepresentation by them".

Some speakers at a consultative session off the conference floor insisted that the Liberal Democrats should not abandon their commitment to full political union. But others warned about being seen as wanting a wholesale transfer of powers to Brussels - suggesting that Mr Kennedy can establish a consensus for a more practical approach to Europe.

Malcolm Bruce, the party's economic spokesman, recently acknowledged that European Monetary Union - which his party supports - may not be achieved until well into the next century.

The document reaffirms party policy in favour of extending majority voting-under which no country would have a veto. It also argues that without it no British government can be serious about achieving reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

But it warns that the party must be "specific and self-disciplined" in its calls for more QMV - qualified majority voting - and that national vetoes must be retained on sensitive issues such as border controls, the issue of identity cards and the commitment of national forces under a common defence policy.

Reaffirming the party's policy in favour of a referendum on any significant constitutional changes resulting from the IGC, it also warns that the legitimacy among the public of European institutions risks being undermined by EU fraud and waste.

The document restates the need for "greater responsibility and authority" to be vested in the European parliament, but it is careful to warn this must be balanced by a greater role in European affairs for member state parliaments.

It says: "The question of the European parliament having equal legislative rights to the Council, and therefore a gradual and progressive extension of the co-decision procedure, has to be set alongside the varying extents to which existing national parliaments enjoy adequate scrutiny over European legislation."

On monetary union, the document supports the use of structural and cohesion funds to ease the transition to a single currency, because of the risk of huge unemployment in some EU countries because of the disciplines imposed by EMU. But it adds that the advantages of currency stability, low inflation and the completion of the single market "could so easily be sacrificed through illusions of retaining our long-lost independence in controlling our exchange rate".