Tories turn against Europe: Nationalistic outburst on votes crisis dismays Europhile MPs

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR yesterday raised the stakes in the confrontation over voting powers in an expanded European Union with a nationalistic attack on 'doctrinaire and inflexible' opposition to Britain's minority position.

The Prime Minister alarmed Tory pro-Europeans with a Commons outburst during which he sought to turn the deadlock in Brussels to party political advantage by denouncing John Smith, the Labour leader, as 'Monsieur Oui, the poodle of Brussels.'

As the latest round of Brussels negotiations broke up yesterday without resolving the crisis, Mr Major went of his way to reassure rank and file MPs on the Tory right that ministers 'would fight Britain's corner hard' and would not be swayed by 'phoney threats' from European governments that Britain was delaying enlargement of the European Union.

The tone of Mr Major's remarks was in contrast with that of Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, who last week warned backbenchers that prolonged delay could indeed put enlargement at risk.

Mr Hurd said after yesterday's inconclusive Brussels meeting that Britain was 'not inflexible' and would have to make concessions as much as other EU countries.

The Prime Minister - in an answer reminiscent of his predecessor's style of other states have taken an inflexible and doctrinaire line.' Whitehall sources lost little time in explaining that the reference was to Belgium and the Netherlands, two of the strongest opponents of Britain's attempt to keep down to 23 - despite enlargement - the number of votes needed to block proposals to be decided by majority voting.

While Mr Major's language in no way precludes a deal, and Downing Street insisted later there was adequate time for negotiations to progress before the European Parliament is due to ratify enlargement in early May, there were signs of rapidly spreading despondency on the party's beleaguered pro-European wing.

The 'Positive European' Group sent a message this week to Mr Hurd assuring him of their support for whatever deal he brought back from Brussels. But one of its prominent members said last night he feared that Mr Major's words would excite unrealistic expectations on the right and make a compromise more difficult.

The Prime Minister was behaving like 'President Mitterrand without the finesse'.

But in what MPs of all parties saw as an attempt to define the Tory line in June's European elections, Mr Major claimed: 'Labour would sign away our votes, sign away our competitiveness and sign away our money.'

In Brussels, Mr Hurd gave a robust defence of Britain's position, which is backed by Spain, adding: 'There has to be movement on both sides.'

But Hans Van Den Broek, the EU foreign affairs Commissioner, said: 'Nothing has happened here today. That is the problem.'

Mr Hurd, who will resume negotiations at an informal foreign ministers' meeting in Greece at the weekend, insisted that much broader issues than qualified majority voting were at stake. 'We only just managed, several of us, to ratify the Maastricht treaty. It was a close-run thing in several countries. This appears to many in Britain as a centralising move too far.'

The Foreign Secretary specifically rejected a Greek proposal to allow a delay when voting decisions go against big states. 'In our view and in the Spanish view that doesn't give adequate protection for our interests,' he said.

Commission officials reiterated yesterday that unless a deal was done this weekend it was highly unlikely that Sweden, Finland, Austria and Norway will be able to enter the EU on time next January. They are also concerned that public opinion in some of these countries may harden against membership.

BUDAPEST - The Hungarian parliament approved the the government's intention to seek EU membership, Reuter reports. The formal application will go in next month.