Hurd's EU voting proposal creates further uncertainty: Minister admits that failure to agree would be an 'own goal'. Andrew Marshall reports

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The Independent Online
The proposed deal that Douglas Hurd has brought back on the European Union voting row gives no positive safeguards for British power to block legislation and opens up a range of new issues.

European capitals will continue to communicate on the issue by fax, telephone and telex, with comments sent to the Greek government, which holds the EU presidency. If a text can be agreed by 6pm tomorrow, then ambassadors will ratify it on Wednesday. If it cannot, the EU will be unable to proceed with enlargement and a political crisis will follow.

If a deal is not reached by Easter, the goal of admitting new members by January next year looks out of reach. Yesterday Mr Hurd faced angry ministers from Austria, Norway, Sweden and Finland, all intent on membership. 'They are becoming very anxious and distressed,' Mr Hurd said. Enlargement was very important to Britain, and 'it would be a great own goal if that British objective were denied'.

The issue at stake was whether 23 votes, representing two big states and a small one, would be able to block legislation where it is subject to a qualified majority vote, as now. When new states enter the EU in 1995 all the other EU members bar Spain want to raise the threshold to 27.

The deal proposed yesterday would allow states wielding 23 votes to continue discussion, and thus delay a decision. But only for a reasonable period. At any time, according to existing rules, a state can call a vote - and then, the new rules would apply.

It is highly unusual for anything but this to happen anyway. Where a big state opposes a measure, it is rare for it to be outvoted: discussion continues until a consensus can be stitched up. So the deal does little more than clarify existing practice. But that is the point, diplomats of other states said. Anything else would have required further amendment to the Maastricht treaty.

The settlement also provides for a committee of national representatives to start considering a new round of EU reform even before the intergovernmental conference planned for 1996.

Mr Hurd claimed that Britain had scored a point by raising the issue of the relative place of small and large states ahead of 1996. But it has also ensured that more political integration will be discussed over the next 18 months.

Leading article, page 13

Saying no, page 14

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