Britain seeks Euro court opt-out

The Government is pressing for European Union member states to have a radical new right to override decisions of the European Court of Justice as part of its strategy to secure "repatriation" of powers from Brussels at next year's inter-governmental summit. Under the novel proposal, the Council of Ministers would be given the right to revise, dilute or reverse a court ruling, probably by a majority vote. It has already begun to be circulated in European capitals and has attracted some sympathy.

It comes in the wake of increasing complaints from Euro-sceptic ministers and backbenchers that the Luxembourg court's wide-ranging jurisdiction to interpret Treaty of Rome obligations has led to far-reaching effects not envisaged when member states signed up.

The suggestion will surprise even Euro-sceptics, some of whom have feared that clipping the court's powers could prove an insuperable task. As things now stand, a ruling can only be overturned by member states agreeing a treaty amendment.

Ministers and officials are also addressing the issue of the repatriation of some of the powers now exercised by the European Commission in Brussels. Health is one area seen as ripe for potential reform. Such a move, an attempt to unpick a part of the Maastricht treaty, would shock some pro-European Tories.

Health has never formed part of the commission's remit since its inception in 1957, but a new article was inserted at Maastricht, setting up a framework of co-operation between states and giving the commission powers relating to the prevention of disease, health scourges and drug dependence through research, health education and public information.

It has also emerged that the Prime Minister has put off for up to three months a key positioning speech on Europe while officials and ministers explore avenues of repatriation. An address or television interview had been expected within the next fortnight.

Meanwhile, John Major will respond to the latest overtures of his diehard Euro-rebels in a speech at a dinner on Friday held by the neo-Thatcherite Conservative Way Forward group.

In a statement on Tuesday night, eight of the nine rebels without the party whip called for the Government to deliver a "more specific definition of the powers which we believe should be returned to member states". Mr Major is expected to reassure the party at large of his determination to seek to take back some power from the court and the commission.

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