EU rewards Britain with opt-out deal

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Britain was yesterday rewarded for pledging to sign the European social chapter with the offer of a generous "opt out" from new open-frontier laws, paving the way to a possible deal on the next European treaty.

The Government's pledge on Monday to accept social legislation spurred Britain's partners into publishing a draft text on pooling justice and immigration powers which the Government can probably accept.

Although it has long seemed likely that Britain would be allowed to keep its internal frontier controls for other European Union nationals - while all other member states lift theirs - the text published yesterday contains the first firm proposal on how this would work.

Current power-sharing in areas of immigration control and home affairs, carried out by some EU countries under the so-called Schengen agreement, is now to be incorporated into the EU machinery. However, the text recognises that Britain and Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, "because of their specificities" cannot be bound by the arrangements.

The "specificities" referred to constitutes the first clear recognition by other EU states that Britain's island status, and traditional reliance on border checks for immigration and crime control, does make it a special case in this policy area.

The "opt-out" offer is therefore not made reluctantly, as the social chapter opt out was in the Maastricht Treaty. Rather, it is a recognition on the EU's part of the need for sensible flexibility, and could signal a turning point in the way negotiations on integration are conducted in future. Furthermore, the "opt-out" offer is far more generous than had been expected while the Conservative government was in power.

Britain is, effectively, to be allowed to pick and chose, which areas of home affairs and immigration power-sharing it wants to be a part of. There are aspects of the new arrangements which Britain wants to share in, namely police co-operation and tougher anti-asylum checks at external borders.

Britain "may, at any time, accept some or all of the provisions ..." says the draft protocol.

Despite the clear attractions of the new offer, prepared by the Dutch government, which currently holds the EU presidency, British officials warned against talks of an early agreement in this area. The officials clearly believe Britain can still squeeze a better deal before the Amsterdam summit in just six weeks time.