The Government is considering a draft proposal under which Britain would accept that in future a veto would require 27 votes but any decision opposed by a 23-vote minority would be deferred until 1996 at least.
The new option came to light after John Major hinted at the desirability of a two-tier voting system at a private lunchtime meeting with senior Tory backbenchers. It will be among a series of solutions on the agenda for the informal meeting of the 12 EU foreign ministers in Greece this weekend.
The compromise if agreed, would allow Mr Major to argue that he had secured Britain's objective of retaining present minority powers to block European legislation to which it objects - like social measures - while being better able to force through legislation it favours, for example on the single market.
Hopes of an early deal as early as this weekend remain dim. There is no evidence that either Britain or its European partners are yet prepared to back down from their entrenched positions in the row, over whether voting rules should change when new members enter the European Union.
But there were clear signs in Westminster last night, following a half hour meeting between the Prime Minister and Mr Hurd, of an effort to limit the impact of Mr Major's Euro-sceptic remarks in the Commons on Tuesday.
Mr Major was said to have still been in robust form at a private lunchtime meeting with the executive of the 1922 Tory backbench committee.
But he is also said to have pointed out - without giving any clear indication that the Government was proposing to soften its line - the irony that in certain circumstances the higher minority of 27 would actually be helpful to Britain. For example, while the UK constantly finds itself in a minority on social legislation - often of only one, or in EU terms just 10 votes - it is in a majority in wanting to secure reform of the Common Agriculture Policy, a point emphasised last week by Gillian Shephard, the Minister of Agriculture, to the Cabinet.
This point was also underpinned by briefings circulating to Tory MPs from the party's high command. While stressing that Britain intended to maintain its tough negotiating stance and was justified in doing so, these also made the factual point that in some cases - for example in legislation removing barriers to the single market - the requirement that only a significant minority could block legislation had been helpful to the British government.
A deal on voting and on new EU members must be voted through by the European Parliament, which meets twice in full session before elections in June. Some British officials were at pains to stress last night this could prove an artificial deadline since the parliament may not even be able to secure a quorum for ratifying enlargement in its closing session.
But officials in Brussels say Britain believes that enlargement can still take place if there is agreement on voting in early April. Germany and Italy both said yesterday that an interim solution might be possible that could be reviewed in two years' time, when the EU is due in any case to hold a conference to change its rules. This means that the other 10 would make concessions to Britain and Spain, which is also opposed to the voting changes, in the short term, with a guarantee that they were not permanent.' I believe that with goodwill solutions can be found, which in some circumstances could be interim solutions,' the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, said. The idea received backing from Italy.
Any deal will have to stipulate that the size of a blocking minority will rise to 27 from 23 votes, with votes allocated according to a country's size, as at present.
But a separate protocol or declaration may state that in certain circumstances - where two large and one small country are out-voted - legislation would be held over until after 1996, when the EU reviews its rules.
Since the new voting rules only come into operation on 1 January 1995 at the earliest, that would mean a maximum delay of two years. Much EU legislation has a one-year delay in any case.
John Smith, the Labour leader, yesterday accused Mr Major of using the European deadlock in a 'desperate' effort to distract attention from tax and unemployment.
Mr Smith said on BRMB Radio in Birmingham that Mr Major's tactics were putting at risk the whole process of EU enlargement which was 'greatly in Britian's interest'.
He added that Austria, Finland, Sweden and Norway were 'net contributors to the community budget and predicted that in the end there would be a deal. 'But in the meantime a great deal of harm will have been done to Britain's interests in Europe.'Reuse content