What if.. Britain leaves EU affairs paralysed?

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The long term result of Britain's strategy over BSE could be to alienate its allies and block progress on issues that are very dear to the Government's heart. So far most of Britain's EU partners have reacted in a low-key way, but there are signs that their irritation is growing.

France's minister for European Affairs, Michel Barnier, warned yesterday that John Major's threats to paralyse negotiations could eventually obstruct the expansion of the Union to the countries of Eastern Europe.

If the British refuse to ratify an agreement of the Inter-governmental Conference, which is working to revise the Maastricht treaty, "there would be a crisis and the process of expansion, which everybody wishes for, would be blocked", warns Barnier.

The conference, which began its deliberations two months ago, is due to reach a conclusion in a year's time. Barnier sees the fact that the IGC has become entwined with British domestic politics as problematic, but outwardly remains confident a solution will be found.

"It is true that this will pose a problem", he told the French daily, Le Figaro, "but I don't think that a great country like the United Kingdom will cut itself off from the rest of Europe. As Jacques Chirac said in London, 'We need the British' and they need Europe. We shall simply have to convince them that by joining in efforts to deepen the Union, they will not lose their souls."

In the short-term, however, he believes that any obstruction from the British over the beef embargo will have little effect on talks. "It would not obstruct the negotiations from advancing," he said.

The British position could simply slow the talks down and Barnier feels that "we should be aware of the process grinding to a halt. There is still a tendency for certain countries to remain inactive", he warned, "and this could be reinforced by the attitude of the United Kingdom".

Germany has kept silent so far over Mr Major's demarche. "There will be no comment until the Florence summit," a government spokesman said. "We do not want to pour oil on the flames of a domestic dispute," explained Werner Hoyer, the State Secretary at the German Foreign Office.

Mr Hoyer usually acts as Bonn's hard man on matters pertaining to Britain, but yesterday he was full of praise for London's hitherto "constructive and co-operative" approach to the IGC.

Behind the wall of silence, however, German officials are frantically looking for ways to defuse the crisis. Bonn is worried that Britain's obstruction will torpedo moves to harmonise the Union's embryonic police force, Europol - a subject close to Chancellor Kohl's heart. If Britain maintains its posture, an agreement that was to have been reached about Europol at next month's European summit in Florence will be foiled.

Most German commentators are familiar with Mr Major's domestic problems, and detect a pathetic man hiding behind the bluster. "Actually, Major's threat is less of an ultimatum than a cry for help aimed - of all places - at Europe," said the Frankfurter Allgemeine under the headline "The English Disease".

It is unlikely any help will be forthcoming from Bonn. Germany will not be bending over backwards to rescue Mr Major from the corner he has boxed himself into.

The calculations are longer-term. "All of Europe is waiting for [Major] to be voted out of office," declared the state-run television channel ARD.