EU reluctantly accepts Britain's compromise: The voting delay won by Britain will last until the EU rewrites its rules in 1996

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The Independent Online
EUROPE reluctantly accepted the compromise offered to Britain yesterday, with continuing doubts hanging over what it means and how much it is worth.

British officials say the deal includes considerable safeguards and represents a significant victory. But by contrast, officials in Brussels yesterday said the concessions Britain has been given amounted to little more than a diplomatic fig-leaf. 'The emperor has no clothes,' one official said.

The Ioannina compromise recognises that the number of votes required to block legislation that is subject to qualified majority voting will rise from 23 to 27. It refers to a time delay of a 'reasonable period', not the ability to block legislation completely.

It allows some 'wiggle room', where a group of states too small to block a measure have problems with legislation. Already, every effort is made to avoid isolating states and the measure will change little. 'I think this will not have much practical effect,' a Council of Ministers official said.

Each European Union state agreed to the compromise, but some countries indicated their unhappiness, including the Dutch, who accepted with 'reluctance'. They feel the latitude introduced by this deal is too much, and worry that it may prevent future reforms to speed decision-making.

Britain argues that the new text is legally binding, since a key part of it is in the form of a decision by the Council of Ministers, the EU's main legislative body. But it is a special and rarely-used form of decision and affects neither the EU treaty nor the Council's rules of procedure. The voting delay that Britain has won will last until the EU rewrites its rules in 1996 and then passes a new treaty parallel to Maastricht.

It is limited to those cases where existing law contains no obligatory time limits. Many of the EU mechanisms for decision- making, however, contain so many time limits that it is unclear whether Britain could enforce a delay. Most member states and legal experts from the Commission, Council of Ministers and Parliament believe the delay will in practice be two or three months. In any case, other member states can always call a vote if a majority wants - seven states out of 12.

However, it became clear over the weekend that the British problem extended beyond voting, to doubts among Cabinet members about other aspects of EU policy. It was necessary to add a 'sweetener' to the package to buttress British claims that this was a tough deal, and so John Major announced yesterday that Britain had received guarantees that the Commission would stop using back-door methods to pass social legislation. The Commission said that it had 'reminded' Britain of its social policy plans for the rest of the year. It gave a verbal statement saying that measures planned this year under its powers on health and safety at work would not stray beyond their remit.

The Commission also said that Britain's social policy opt-out would ensure that British people and organisations would not be affected by new legislation passed under this part of the Maastricht treaty. A controversial measure under discussion concerns the establishment of works councils for multinational firms, and will affect many British-based firms in Europe. But Britain has won an assurance that employees based in Britain will not be counted as part of the calculation to see which companies are included.

There is little in the oral statement to constitute a guarantee, and Commission officials denied there was anything in the way of a negotiation, or a written assurance. On Monday, there were talks between Sir John Kerr, the British ambassador in Brussels, and Jacques Delors, the Commission president, after the idea of a 'reassurance' emerged from talks in Ioannina. British officials said the deal had more substance than the Commission's statement.

The European Parliament is unhappy with the deal, and some MEPs will vote against accepting enlargement specifically because of the British deal. They regard this as a means of slowing up the EU. But the desire to see new members will probably override this when the Parliament votes on 4 May, and it is likely the enlargement package will be accepted.

(Photograph omitted)