The issue has rapidly assumed the potential for a fresh row within the parliamentary Tory party if the Government yields to pressure from a powerful coalition of forces, led by Germany, to compromise on qualified majority voting.
The British have so far resisted efforts to increase the number of votes required to assemble a blocking minority against proposals decided by majority voting. The idea is to reflect the new composition of the European Union after its enlargement from next year and would maintain the current proportion - and therefore a higher number - of votes required for a veto.
A series of right-wing Euro- rebel MPs have warned Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, that a compromise in Brussels today would threaten the fragile Tory unity which Mr Hurd is seeking to maintain in the run-up to the European elections. At the same time, there were clear signs last night that even pro-European Tory MPs were setting their face against compromise on British insistence that only 23 votes should be required to veto a proposal - as opposed to the 27 being sought by the Germans.
The tensions within the party were underlined last night when Lord Tebbit walked out of a meeting of the backbench Tory committee on Europe when Sir Christopher Prout, leader of the Tory MEPs, acknowledged that they had disagreements with their European counterparts over questions of 'detail' such as European Monetary Union. Lord Tebbit apparently objected to the term 'detail' to describe EMU.
But while Hugh Dykes, the fiercely pro-European MP for Harrow East, said he favoured the proposal for 27 on the grounds that it would encourage small countries, Patrick Cormack, the pro-European MP for Staffordshire South, said: 'The general feeling is that we should not give ground on this. It would be foolish to do anything that would weaken our position in the European elections.'
The problem for Mr Hurd, however, is that a refusal to compromise threatens to cast Britain in the unwelcome role of seeming to block enlargement by the admission of Sweden, Norway, Finland and Austria - which it has long advocated. Downing Street yesterday repeated that it had no intention of declaring its negotiating hand ahead of today's Foreign Affairs Council. But amid strong indications that Britain was still standing firm, ministers were concentrating on trying to assemble a coalition of countries, including Spain, favourable to the British position. British diplomats say only that the UK position is firm, while their EU counterparts insist there has to be a solution - although admitting it will be hard to find one and save face.
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