Rifkind defends Britain's veto as Tory Euroscepticism grows

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Further evidence that the Conservative Party is uniting around an increasingly Eurosceptic stance emerged yesterday, as former rebel Tory MPs and Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, set out their positions for next month's European summit.

Mr Rifkind, giving evidence to the Commons select committee scrutinising European legislation, made an unusually fierce defence of the British veto, reaffirming the government's hostility to extending the system of "qualified majority voting" under which countries can be outvoted. He cited Nato and the United Nations Security Council as two cases where all members retain a veto. "It is not unreasonable to approach the question of its extension with very great caution," he said.

The arch Eurosceptic Bill Cash, Tory MP for Stafford and a member of the committee, said: "I find that extremely reassuring, Foreign Secretary."

Meanwhile, eight of the nine Tory MPs who were excluded from the parliamentary party in the European rebellion last year issued a manifesto of demands for the Turin summit at the end of next month, which will start the process of revising the Maastricht treaty.

They warned the Prime Minister that he would lose the next election unless he pledged to pull out of the Common Fisheries Policy and Common Agricultural Policy.

But the MPs softened their opposition to a single European currency, bringing their position closer to that of the government. Instead of asking for an election commitment not to join a single currency - as demanded by the Tory leadership challenger John Redwood last week - the group of eight demands a referendum, which John Major has already half promised. The group wants a manifesto promise that a Tory government would only abandonsterling "if such a historic step had been democratically legitimised in advance of the Cabinet's decision by the people in a referendum with a two-thirds majority".

Mr Rifkind's Eurosceptical remarks follow a jibe last week against other member states for opposing the import of two extra lorry loads of Bulgarian strawberry jam, and his recent prediction that the 1999 deadline for a single European currency would be missed.

And his comments were buttressed by an attack on European partners from Douglas Hogg, the Minister for Agriculture, for their failure to cut farming subsidies in a new price-support package to be announced today. Mr Hogg estimated that European farmers had been "overpaid" 12bn Ecus over the past four years.

But Robin Cook, Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, pointed to Tory MPs like Edwina Currie who backed a pro-European position paper for the Turin summit. Mr Cook said: "The policy statements issued today reveal that the two wings of the Tory party have fundamentally different and irreconcilable views on the question of Britain's future in Europe."

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