Kohl calls on Major to back down on EU votes: Prime Minister receives telephone plea

Click to follow
Helmut Kohl, Chancellor of Germany, yesterday urged John Major in a telephone call to back down in the European voting row, as anti-European backbenchers marshalled their forces in an attempt to head off any compromise.

The Chancellor's telephone call - in which he is believed to have warned the Prime Minister that the European Parliament might sabotage European Union enlargement if Britain stood firm - underlined the conflicting pressures on the British government as the negotiations began in Brussels.

In a carefully worded Commons answer yesterday, Mr Major did not commit himself explicitly to sticking to Britain's line that only 23 votes out of 90 should be needed to block a majority proposal. But saying that the effects on EU voting of enlargement needed to be 'very carefully considered', the Prime Minister added: 'What we need to ensure is the democratic legitimacy and rights of minorities are sustained in the European Union.'

This brought some hope of a deal to pro-European MPs, who believe they have acted with restraint, showing understanding for the political difficulties Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, faced in Brussels by remaining relatively silent. A predictable exception was Hugh Dykes, MP for Harrow East, who accused the Government of 'two years of timid, tremulous, appeasement, which has built the rebels into neurotic TV chat-show ogres'. Others have been more sympathetic. Mr Hurd warned the left-of-centre, pro-European, Nick's Diner group this month that he would have difficulties with the anti-Europeans.

In private, there was no doubting the gulf between the pro- and anti- European factions last night. John Townend, the anti-European chairman of the backbench finance committee, while condemning the proposal for 'watering down Britain's rights' insisted that he and his colleagues were strongly in favour of enlargement. But another Thatcherite MP suggested that, if it was a choice between enlargement and a compromise on voting, the first could be sacrificed. 'It's largely socialist countries we are talking about admitting and, if they have to wait, so be it.'

Equally, one pro-European MP took a significantly more aggressive view in private. 'So far we have . . . tried not to rock the boat in advance of the European elections. We know we are going to have to swallow a manifesto that is more cautious than we would like. But if the rebels are going to carry on making a song and dance, we are going to have to call them. Maybe the Government will have to put down another motion of no-confidence.'

Which leaves the crucial question of how far the rebels can really sabotage any compromise, if it is struck. As it happens the row threatens to revive Tory disunity over Europe just at the time when the ranks of hard-line rebels appeared to have thinned since their parliamentary guerrilla warfare last year against the Maastricht Bill. Senior rebels from that period had been arguing against trying to sabotage the forthcoming Bill increasing the EU's financial resources.

True, the opposition to a compromise on majority was, if anything, reinforced by the re-election yesterday of Sir George Gardiner, MP for Reigate, as chairman of the right-of-centre 92 group, despite his earlier brushes with John Major. And William Cash, the highest profile Europe-rebel, has claimed that its forces are bigger against a voting compromise than they were against Maastricht.

With no haste required to bring in the Bill ratifying enlargement, their chances of an effective Parliamentary rebellion are severely limited. Labour and the Liberal Democrats would certainly join forces with the Government to push ratification through and isolate the rebels. Mr Hurd will face a tense meeting of the backbench European committee at 5pm today. If there are the bones of a compromise to put to the MPs, he will have to use all his powers of persuasion. But he will have powerful support from the pro-European wing.