The European Crisis: Now the spotlight falls on 'British problem'

BRITISH difficulties over ratification of the Maastricht treaty are now the main concern of other EC governments, it emerged following Monday's meeting of EC foreign ministers in New York.

A senior French diplomat told the Independent that the 'concern for the Community is not so much the Danish problem, but the British problem'. He said the assessment of the Britain's EC partners was that 'if the Treaty went to Parliament before the end of the year, it would fail. Had the result of the French referendum been more like 60 per cent, the British government would probably have been able to convince people that we are all good Europeans and they would have had more of a chance to get it through'.

He said the issue had been discussed at a working breakfast yesterday between the French Foreign Minister, Roland Dumas, and the acting US Secretary of State, Larry Eagleburger. Mr Dumas had told Mr Eagleburger that now that the French referendum was over, 'our efforts must be directed at Britain'. He described Britain's situation over ratification as 'very delicate'.

Mr Dumas had explained that the row at the EC foreign ministers' meeting had focused on whether to include in the final declaration a target date for ratification for the end of the year - which the British had resisted. He said the Twelve had agreed to an 'elegant solution' on the text to say that first, the Treaty was not renegotiable, and second, that the ratification timetable should be kept according to the letter of the Treaty, which provides greater leeway than 1 January 1993.

'The British are buying themselves time,' said the French diplomat. 'It is true that they have been hiding behind the Danish problem. The Danes are now going forward a bit. But we gather there is not even agreement within the British Government itself about whether the Treaty should be ratified or not.'

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, would not comment in any detail about the Danish announcement and fell short of welcoming it as a positive step. He reiterated that prior to ratification in Britain, the Government needed 'to know clearly what the Danish plans are' and would also await the outcome of the special EC heads of government summit next month. The Danish announcement had 'been foreshadowed for a long time,' he added.

Preparations are already beginning for the special summit to be held on 16 October in Britain, with a flurry of diplomacy. John Major yesterday spoke on the telephone to the Danish Prime minister, Poul Schluter, the Dutch Prime Minister, Ruud Lubbers, the German Chancellor, Helmut Kohl, and the French President, Francois Mitterrand. Mr Major and Mr Mitterrand are expected to meet, probably in Paris, next week. Mr Major will also have a meeting with Mr Kohl in Britain next month.

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