Cabinet supports Hurd on EU voting rights

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THE CABINET yesterday overcame continuing differences over Europe long enough to give strong support but limited room for manoeuvre to Douglas Hurd in the confrontation over minority voting rights in the EU.

After a lengthy debate Mr Hurd was given a mandate to negotiate a deal in Brussels provided it preserved the 'substance' of Britain's present capacity to assemble a minority coalition against European proposals it dislikes.

That stance was seen in Whitehall as holding out little hope that Britain and its negotiating ally Spain could agree to the most recently canvassed EU compromise - the chance for the two countries to delay unacceptable legislation for up to two months.

The negotiations re-open on Tuesday in Brussels with Britain still determined to resist raising to 27 votes from 23 the minority required to veto a proposal settled by majority voting. Mr Hurd told the Cabinet yesterday that Germany was being helpful in trying to secure a deal.

Mr Major told the Commons that the Government would 'defend the country's best interests in those negotiations'. He told MPs he was 'entirely confident' that could be done in 'an acceptable way' without any question of delaying enlargement of the EU by the admission of Austria, Finland, Norway and Sweden.

Later, during a wide-ranging Commons Easter debate, one leading Eurosceptic, John Biffen, MP for Shropshire North, warned that the 'enormous' amount of legislation from Brussels would increase in an enlarged EU. He added: 'Therefore the check to the legislative cascade has to be kept as tight as possible.'

The Cabinet's relative caution reflected differences that cut across the normal pro- and anti-European divides, and have been complicated by what some ministers see as an aggressively combative line taken by the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Kenneth Clarke, and to a lesser extent Michael Heseltine, the President of the Board of Trade.

Some pro-European MPs claim to see this as a subtle repositioning ahead of a possible leadership crisis. David Hunt, another pro-European, is understood to have been emphatic in ensuring that Britain retains veto powers over European employment legislation.

Equally there is a view within the Ministry of Agriculture that bigger powers for a majority to force through legislation might help to reform the Community Agricultural Policy against the objections of France and Mediterranean countries.

But while defending Britain's right to challenge other EU members over the voting issue, Mr Heseltine went out of his way yesterday to stress that Mr Hurd enjoyed the Cabinet's 'total confidence' in the negotiations.