Hurd reassures Tories on Europe

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The Independent Online
DOUGLAS HURD, the Foreign Secretary, last night skilfully prepared the ground for a negotiated compromise on voting in Europe with a warning that a stand-off could precipitate the collapse of plans to enlarge the European Union by four countries.

At a sombre and packed 60-minute meeting with backbench MPs, Mr Hurd went out of his way to reassure them that he was determined to preserve Britain's power to assemble a blocking minority to veto European policies.

But he appealed for 'understanding' from a wary Tory party in seeking to reconcile the objectives of securing EU enlargement - by the admission of Finland, Sweden, Norway and Austria - and preserving minority rights under the voting system.

Mr Hurd is expected to tell a difficult Cabinet meeting today that Spain is fighting side by side with the UK, and that while he has been resolute in making no shift, there may yet be the basis for agreement.

Ministers admit there are divisions within the Government, not confined to the normal pro and anti-European camps, evident during the Maastricht deal.

A Spanish proposal - which would allow a minority of 27 votes for a veto (up from the current 23), except in cases where two large countries and one small are seeking to block a proposal, would be accepted by the British because it would preserve its present veto rights. But it has so far found little favour with other European countries though high ranking diplomatic sources say it 'could come back'.

Some senior ministers argue that a prolonged row over voting arrangements would open a 'can of worms', given that the voting power of Germany has not risen in accordance with the massive increase in population generated by unification. Mr Hurd told last night's meeting that Germany, although the main proponents of a 27-vote minority, had been 'useful' in trying to achieve a deal.

The great stress laid by Mr Hurd last night on the importance of enlargement - which he emphasised pointedly had been as much an objective of Margaret Thatcher as of John Major, and the dangers of undue delay - was taken as ruling out shelving the issue until after the European elections.

If Britain does not reach agreement next week, then it will become increasingly difficult to get the approval of the European parliament by the end of May, after which the assembly disperses for the June European elections. Without a deal, parliamentarians will not accept the enlargement.

Although serious doubts among back benchers about a compromise extend well beyond the ranks of the Maastricht rebels into the mainstream of the party, their powers to block enlargement legislation - expected in the autumn - are severely undercut by the certainty that the Opposition would back the Government.

Euro-rebels last night took the tactical line that loyalty was the best way of limiting any compromise. Sir Teddy Taylor, the Euro-sceptical MP for Southend East, said: 'I am reassured by his appreciation that this is now an important issue.'

Edwina Currie, the Euro candidate for Bedfordshire South, warned the Foreign Secretary that the 'niggle' would see a Tory rout in the Euro-elections. But another fervent Euro-enthusiast said afterwards: 'The broad mood of the meeting was that he must get the best deal in difficult circumstances.'

Dilemma on voting rules, page 13

Andrew Marr, Hamish McRae, page 23