Parliament & Politics: Ashdown poised to back Major's view on Europe

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PADDY ASHDOWN, leader of the Liberal Democrats, will today back John Major's view of a decentralised Europe, saying there are policy areas where the European Commission should start to do less.

But he will couple his backing for subsidiarity - the doctrine that decisions should be taken at the lowest possible level - with a warning to Mr Major that subsidiarity 'is but the flip side of federalism'.

He plans to tell the Congress of European Liberals in Copenhagen that it will be federalism 'which saves the Community from a centralised, inter-governmental and undemocratic future'. He will say that it is federalism, too, which argues that power should be decentralised as much as possible, and that decision-taking should be shared between different levels of government.

'No principle of subsidiarity can be applied with confidence,' he will warn the Prime Minister, 'unless there is a federal authority to ensure that conflicts are resolved, that common decisions, for instance on the single market, are upheld and not evaded, and that we can avoid the process of creeping centralisation which can too often grip political and bureaucratic institutions.'

Mr Ashdown will make his case at a time when some Tory MPs believe that Mr Major faces considerable difficulties in putting flesh on the bones of his backing for subsidiarity, with the mechanisms as yet unclear for determining which decisions are for national and regional government, and then enforcing those decisions.

Mr Ashdown will argue that it is federal Europe 'that we must all work for, once the Maastricht process has been confirmed'.

Europe, he believes, 'must be made more democratic'. The Community's institutions remain too unaccountable, with too much left to ministers meeting in secret, with little accountability either to their own people or to the European Parliament.

What is needed, he will argue, is 'Maastricht-plus' - with no retreat from a treaty that was an essential step forward, but which could not be the end point of the Community's development.