The European Elections: Sovereignty: Major puts forward multi-track EU vision: Prime Minister seeks to reassure opponents of further integration. Donald Macintyre reports

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The Independent Online
JOHN MAJOR last night set out his vision of a 'flexible' and 'multi-layered' Europe to reinforce his pledge that a Conservative government would not co-operate in attempts to promote further centralisation in the EU.

Mr Major's emphasis on a 'multi-speed and multi- track' Europe cuts across the freshly repeated view of French and German politicians that integration will press ahead with or without 'sceptics' like Britain. But it contained a hint that his government would be prepared to extend to other issues its opt- out on a single currency and the Social Chapter, if Britain's partners insisted on pressing ahead with further integration of Community institutions. The use by Mr Major for the first time of the term 'multi-track' came in a speech at Ellesmere Port, Cheshire, which deliberately set out to contrast the Tory EU vision with that of Labour and the Liberal Democrats. Opposition policies, he claimed, would risk Britain's pounds 3bn a year rebate and threaten Community-wide tax increases.

His language omitted the overtly nationalist imagery he used at Bristol last week and followed closely that used by Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, at the outset of the campaign. But with its heavy emphasis on the opt-outs which he had secured at Maastricht, the speech was a conscious tilt to those - including many in his own party - who fear the loss of further sovereignty.

'I have never believed that Europe must invariably act as one on every issue. Trying to make every country conform to every plan is a socialist way of thinking; it's not for us,' he said. 'I don't happen to think that it threatens Europe if member states are free to do some things in their own way and at their own speed. If other countries want to slap more costs on their businesses then they are welcome to. If they want the Social Chapter they can have it. But we're not having it here.'

Labour's foreign affairs spokesman, Jack Cunningham, seized on the speech to argue that Mr Major was prepared to abandon 'the fast lane' in Europe.

And in an open letter to Mr Major last night, Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, said: 'I believe that most people in this country will want to aim higher and will reject your view of a 'drop-out' Britain.'

Mr Major's speech follows his promise that decisions made at the inter-governmental conference on the EU's future would not require a referendum. The implication was that the proposals would be ones with which Britain could agree or it would use its veto to block them. The emphasis on 'multi-speed' follows, and contrasts with, the implication of a two-speed Europe with Britain in the slow lane, given in an interview in Le Monde by Alain Lamassoure, the French European Affairs minister. He suggested that reluctant countries should lose the right to vote on issues like immigration and the single currency on which they declined to accept an extension of EU competence.

Mr Major went out of his way last night to make clear that Britain did not accept that Commission directives were required to reinforce inter-governmental co-operation over issues on which Britain was playing a central role, such as defence.

(Photograph omitted)