Major fails to dispel image of reluctant UK: Prime Minister's attempt at reassurance does little to persuade Europe of British commitment to integration

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR, despite his protestations that Britain should not be caricatured as the European Union's most reluctant member, delivered a speech that will do little to persuade Europeans otherwise.

The bulk of the Prime Minister's speech was an impassioned argument in favour of improving inter-governmental co-operation (something which could happen if the EU did not exist), expanding the EU eastwards and changing EU policies on agriculture.

Such an approach risks being interpreted as an attempt to hold the Union back by those who believe the scope of its institutions must be deepened. 'This speech is just an endorsement of Europe as a free trade zone. Of course we in the Netherlands welcome free trade but we want the union to be more than that,' said a member of yesterday's business audience in Leiden.

Where Mr Major did address constitutional questions, it was chiefly to criticise the European Parliament - a criticism likely to anger EU countries, particularly Germany, that take the democratic role of the parliament seriously.

The German idea that a 'hard core' of countries - probably Benelux, France and Germany - should act together to speed closer political and economic integration may be politically unpalatable for Britain. But Mr Major's re sponse was insufficiently thought out to provide a coherent and workable alternative.

In the Netherlands - seen as one of Britain's closest supporters - the idea of a vanguard of EU countries breaking away from the rest has not been received enthusiastically (even though the Netherlands would be included). But the Dutch Prime Minister, Wim Kok, warned journalists after Mr Major's speech that something like the German CDU proposals might happen by default. 'We cannot exclude that by 1997-1999 there could be a split between those countries wishing to move forward and the rest,' he said.

The creation of a 'hard core' should not be an objective in itself but risked being the inevitable outcome if the union fails to agree a mutually acceptable vision of the future.

In Bonn yesterday, Chancellor Helmut Kohl gave his implicit backing to the discussion paper produced by his CDU party last week. In a clear reference to British reluctance to go full speed ahead towards further European integration, the German chancellor told parliament: 'We absolutely do not want the slowest ship to decide the pace of the convoy.'

Opposition Social Democrats had called upon Chancellor Kohl to distance himself from the controversial discussion paper, which was presented last week by Karl Lamers, foreign affairs spokesman of the ruling Christian Democrats (CDU), and Wolfgang Schauble, leader of the CDU parliamentary floor group. But Mr Kohl defiantly refused to do so.

The chancellery office had appeared to play down the CDU ideas in recent days, not least because of the unhappiness they caused in other European capitals.

But officials pointed out that it was the timing, rather than the content, of the proposals, that had caused dismay. Mr Kohl has on previous occasions suggested that the 'core Europe' should be able to move towards greater integration come what may.

The document has also been criticised by Klaus Kinkel, the German foreign minister and leader of the Free Democrats, the CDU's coalition partners.

Mr Kinkel complained yesterday of the danger of creating a 'Franco-German directoire' - a Europe which is, in effect, led from the centre. With Scandinavian countries due to hold referendums about signing up for the European Union, such an impression could be counter-productive, and might lead to a 'no' vote.

The CDU ideas were also rejected yesterday by Edouard Balladur, the French Prime Minister. He dismissed suggestions that the policy document resembled his own proposals - first floated several months ago but repeated last week - for a three-tier Europe, with the Franco-German relationship at its core.

The difference, he told a cabinet meeting in Paris, was that his plan would not exclude countries such as Britain, Italy and Spain from the forefront of EU policy-making.

Mr Balladur, speaking to his cabinet, 'made a point of clearly distancing himself' from the suggestion by the CDU parliamentary caucus which would exclude Italy and Britain from the inner circle of European Union states, a government spokesman said. He stressed that the aim was not to exclude anyone or to declare, as if by papal decree, who are the good and bad pupils.'

Leading article, page 13

Andrew Marr, page 15

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