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The Sterling Crisis: Britain insists that life goes on: Whitehall's presidency agenda

INSOUCIANCE abounded yesterday among British officials who insisted that their agenda for the presidency of the European Community would not be affected in the slightest by suspended membership of the exchange rate mechanism (ERM), nor by a French 'no' vote on the Maastricht treaty.

'The agenda for our presidency stands. We will take it forward,' a government official said. 'La vie continue. Whatever happens in the ERM, whatever happens in the French referendum.'

He listed Britain's goals in the three months that remain of its presidency as completion of the single market; conclusion of EC budget negotations; progress on the Gatt trade talks; preparations for bringing new members into the EC; expanded relations with the countries of Central and Eastern Europe; and meeting the foreign-policy challenges of Yugoslavia, the Middle East and Somalia. 'None of that is affected by the ERM decision, or by the French result,' he said.

He insisted that since Britain had emphasised that its decision to drop out of the ERM was strictly temporary, EC partners would see it as 'what it is, namely a reaction to exceptional turbulence on the market. They don't believe it betokens any diminishment of our commitments to the EC.'

Indeed, British ideas embodied in the Maastricht treaty - such as a decentralised EC, a 'Citizen's Europe', and enlargement of the Community's membership - were now on 'everybody's agenda anyway'. Even if subsidiarity - the principle of delegating as much power as possible to national and regional authorities - was not ensured by means of the Maastricht treaty, that victory had already been won by the British: 'Whoever wanted to claw back from subsidiarity would now find it impossible. The debate is everywhere now - a debate that started in Britain. The Danish referendum shows the importance of carrying public opinion with you.'

One of the goals that Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, has admitted would be delayed by failure to ratify the Maastricht treaty is enlargement - a subject particularly dear to Britain's heart. Officials hinted that Britain now hoped to circumvent the 'Lisbon condition' agreed at the EC summit last June - that negotiations on entry by Austria, Sweden and Finland cannot begin until the treaty has been ratified. 'The Lisbon condition was put in at a time when everybody thought there would be no problem about Maastricht. But the enlargement process cannot possibly be held up because of what was said in Lisbon,' said one official. He noted that the wording of the condition had been 'shaded' to say only that 'official negotiations' could not start befire ratification.

Furthermore, there was 'no logic' in claiming that progress towards the single market would be impaired by Britain being outside the ERM; such a theory was not only technically incorrect, it also 'does not take account of political will'.

Officials said a resumption of Gatt negotiations was likely before the US presidential elections if the French outcome was a 'yes'. But given the key roles played by France and the European Commission on the agriculture talks, a resumption was less likely in the event of a 'no', which would weaken the position of President Francois Mitterrand and prompt Jacques Delors to resign his post as President of the Commission.

When foreign ministers of the Twelve meet in an extraordinary session in New York on Monday, they will consider the plea by the Italian Foreign Minister, Emilio Colombo, for an emergency meeting to restore monetary order before the Edinburgh summit in December. A British official said a French 'no' vote would enhance the arguments for holding the emergency summit, adding: 'Ultimately, it is for the presidency to decide.'