Britain is threatening to ask the European Court of Justice to stop the Brussels Commission spending money on projects aimed at helping the poor, such as a controversial scheme for the rehabilitation of prostitutes.
Stephen Wall, Britain's permanent representative to the European Union, has written to the Commission accusing it of spending money on combating "social exclusion" without any "legal base." Unless the Commission justifies its action by the end of February, the letter strongly implies that the Government would take the Commission to the European Court.
The Government argues that the projects, costing a total of 9m ecus (pounds 7m), have not been agreed under the EU budget and are an underhand attempt by the Commission to take new powers, particularly in the social policy field. The objection is an attempt to ensure good book-keeping, British officials say.
A broader programme against social "exclusion" has already been blocked by the Council of Ministers, after objections not only from Britain, but Germany. Officials in Brussels, however, argue that these particular projects are allowed under the budget and do not fall under the broader programme. The British threat is another attempt to undermine support programmes aimed at combating the spread of a European underclass, they contend.
The British move coincides with new government attacks on the European Social Chapter which are seen in Brussels as part of a pre-election drive to curry favour with Tory Euro-sceptics. "The Conservatives do not want European action to tackle poverty. That is why the British government is opposed to the programme for combating social exclusion," said Terry Wynn, a Labour member of the European Parliament and budget committee spokesman.
The Commission published its proposals to combat poverty 10 days ago. A total of 86 projects were outlined which Padraig Flynn, the commissioner for social affairs, said were "innovative and creative".
It proposed giving grants to small groups helping disadvantaged people with very specific problems. However, the ultra-liberal colour of the programme was bound to raise the hackles of Conservative Eurosceptics.
Several of the projects listed were straightforward, such as helping prisoners and long-term unemployed reintegrate into normal life. However, also included were less mainstream proposals such as a plan to offer "social integration to very poor travelling families " or to "integrate former prostitutes into the labour market".
The latter plan provoked screams of horror from the Tory press. The Daily Telegraph ran a leading article headlined "The Whores of Brussels" which officials in Brussels described as "sick".
"The British often appear to care more about the welfare of animals than for the disadvantaged and the poor," said a Commission spokesman last night.