Hurd review will curb EC power

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The Independent Online
Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, has begun a far-reaching initiative to push back the limits of European Community influence by asking Whitehall departments to list powers they want returned from Brussels to national governments.

The move, seen as part of a concerted effort to reassure Conservative Eurosceptics, could play a crucial role in defining the development of the EC.

Britain currently holds the presidency of the EC and will help bring forward proposals to revive the Maastricht treaty - assuming the French referendum endorses it - following its rejection by the Danish people.

As well as earmarking legislation and directives to be dropped, Mr Hurd, who has written twice to Whitehall departments, wants ministers to lay out future no-go areas for the Commission. The Foreign Office is also examining the procedures and mechanisms of the Council of Ministers.

The Department of Employment has made clear that it is strongly opposed to the Working Time Directive, which would require the establishment of statutory minimum employment rights, and the Workers' Council Directive, which would oblige larger firms to set schemes for worker representation.

Ministers at the Department of Employment want the EC's competence in employment policy to be limited to issues of health and safety and freedom of movement.

Peter Lilley, the Eurosceptic Secretary of State for Social Security, is taking a predictably tough line, arguing that the EC should have no role in British social security policy.

John MacGregor, Secretary of State for Transport, has also been angered by Brussels- inspired attempts to block road-building programmes. Mr Hurd himself has in the past criticised EC attempts to intervene in the nooks and crannies of British life.

However, Michael Howard, Secretary of State for the Environment, is more cautious, arguing that the public associates European environmental directives with better standards of cleanliness on beaches and high-quality drinking water.

Consumer affairs, for which the Department of Trade and Industry is responsible, and food standards, which come under the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food, are also areas where ministers are likely to want to rein in the Commission. This could lead to rows over issues such as the future of the pint, the labelling of cheeses or the content of the British sausage.

However, these issues are complicated by the fact that ministers approve of the general principle of a 'level playing field' for the introduction of the single market at the end of the year. The European budget for consumer affairs has already been cut back, apparently in anticipation of a shrinking role for Brussels in this area.

The Foreign Office initiative is part of the presidency's drive to put a working definition to the principle of subsidiarity - under which the Commission only takes decisions which cannot be left to national, regional or local government.