Conservatives Meet In Scotland: Hurd gives hint of greater EC flexibility

THE CHANCE of greater EC flexibility, with individual members by-passing Brussels, was offered by Douglas Hurd yesterday.

Replying to an EC debate at the Scottish Conservative Party conference in Edinburgh, the Foreign Secretary urged the diehard opponents of Maastricht to halt the wrangling over the past and unite for the future.

But his appeal had been anticipated by Bill Walker, the colourful MP for North Tayside, who warned of the unstoppable process of economic and monetary union.

Warmly applauded, Mr Walker said: 'I am concerned because the calls for loyalty come to me and to others following the misinformation and the propaganda that has gone out about this treaty. Goebbels would have been proud of some of it. Equally, I am very upset by some of the tactics used by the party machine. Some of them could have been invented by Himmler.

'The party is split from top to bottom on Maastricht - we may as well recognise it. We should stop trying to sweep it under the carpet; it's there. The country is split as well, and it's time we had a referendum so that the people could tell us what they really want.'

But if the Danes reverse last year's no-vote on Maastricht in their rerun referendum next Tuesday, the Commons will give the European Communities (Amendment) Bill its Third Reading by a resounding majority next Thursday. That vote, in which Labour will abstain, will be taken by the Government as Commons approval for ratification of the treaty, probably this summer.

Nevertheless, Mr Hurd went out of his way to offer reassurance to the Conservative opponents in his reply to the debate. He said that those who had called for the creation of a super-state had been blocked at Maastricht, and in the principle of subsidiarity the Prime Minister had planted a signpost away from centralisation and towards national precedence.

Mr Hurd then offered the prospect of further changes ahead, flowing from the expansion of membership to take in Finland, Sweden, Norway and Austria in 1995 - ahead of the next scheduled review of the treaties, in 1996. By the turn of the century, he said, others like Hungary, Poland and the Czech and Slovak republics would be ready for membership, too.

'We are looking at an increasingly diverse Community of 20, even more, and that can't work on the basis of a Community of twelve,' he said. 'We don't want to weaken the existing core policies and achievements. But it's clear to me that we will need to be more flexible.'

That flexibility could mean greater use of inter-governmental agreements on a variety of issues, and the Foreign Secretary cited the examples of the Schengen Agreement on frontiers, in which the UK was not a participant, and the Western European Union, of which Ireland and Denmark were not full members.

That hint of a Brussels by-pass was reinforced by a direct appeal to the Tory rebels. Mr Hurd said: 'Those who challenge the treaty, as Bill Walker did, do so out of honourable beliefs. I do not in any way challenge his or their right to do so. Their beliefs are honourable. The nightmares by which they are haunted are genuine. They are nightmares.

'But in the light of morning, things look different. If we can all of us get it right, the recent wrangles within the party will themselves be remembered as a bad dream.'

(Photograph omitted)