Whitehall hails EU retreat on border checks

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The Independent Online
A Foreign Office minister last night claimed Britain's "no means no" policy had secured a victory with the first formal acknowledgement from the European Union that Britain will never give up its border controls.

After a decade of battling against pressure to open up the frontiers as part of the European single market, Britain now seems certain to be offered an "opt-out" from a new treaty agreement which is likely to set 2001 as the target date for banishing customs and police checks at national EU air, sea and land ports.

The breakthrough for John Major came in Brussels after the latest round of inter-governmental talks on Europe's future. Michel Patijn, the Dutch Minister for European Affairs, said it was now an accepted political fact that the United Kingdom's borders would not be given up in the interests of EU integration - and a change of government at the general election would make no difference.

David Davis, the Foreign Office minister responsible for European negotiations, said: "It is a vindication of our `no means no' policy. We are not at the end of the negotiations but I welcome this statement by the presidency. One of the problems we have had is that the Union has never believed us when we said no in the past. This shows that our `no means no' policy is working."

Charles Wardle, a former Home Office minister who resigned over the threat to Britain's border controls, said it was vindication of his stand. "Two years ago there had not been any noise from the Government or the Opposition over this. There was nothing being said at the European Council meetings by the British government. I know because I was given the briefing by British officials. After I resigned, it was given a higher profile by the Prime Minister ... It is a very important concession by the presidency. The Commission will still want to resist and there is still a danger that the European Court could rule against us, but it is an important step forward."

A draft of a revised treaty, unveiled by the Irish government late last year, renewed hostilities over the issue, because it suggested 1 January 2001 as the last date by which all governments would have to end controls to honour the commitment to build a Europe of free movement for goods, services and people.

But Mr Patijn, who is in charge of the Inter-governmental Conference negotiations because the Netherlands currently holds the EU presidency, said yesterday: "We all know about the differences of opinion on this matter between Britain and the Continent. It is absolutely essential that we work together to converge views on freedom and security."

All member states except the two island countries, Britain and Ireland, are now technically part of the internal border-free area.

The EU was warned yesterday that it must not attempt to curtail the proposed rights of member parliaments to have a say on EU legislation. In a report on the current inter-governmental talks dealing with the future of the Union, the Commons European Legislation Committee said a new treaty "must give those who will be affected by legislation time to see it in draft and to have an input into the process ... "