Britain and EU start to talk the same language of reform

Rewriting Maastricht looks easier after Major's re-election as party leader, writes Andrew Marshall in Strasbourg
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The Independent Online
The prospect of a clash between Britain and the rest of the European Union over the next round of reform is receding.

As ministers met in Strasbourg to discuss next year's rewriting of the Maastricht treaty, Britain's position seemed stronger after John Major's re-election as Conservative leader. And the aspirations of the more integrationist states are fading.

President Jacques Chirac, who praised Mr Major at the Cannes summit, yesterday emphasised that Britain must not be marginalised. "We can't afford to exclude anyone and if we shut them out, we will not have a secure foundation on which to build," he told the European Parliament. He underlined his sympathy with some British ideas. "I wonder whether France shouldn't look across the Channel to the UK," he said.

Under Mr Chirac, France has already shown it shares some of Britain's reservations about integration, including dropping border controls. It has backed away from the Schengen accord, which was intended to create a frontier-free zone. Today the European Commission is expected to present new proposals for removing borders, but they are likely to meet resistance from Paris as well as London.

The Reflection Group, charged with setting up the 1996 Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC), met yesterday and on Monday to discuss the future of EU foreign and security policy. Carlos Westendorp, the Spanish chairman of the group, also praised Mr Major, saying he "defends his interests but at the same time has ensured that the process of European construction should work".

David Davis, the British minister for Europe, has been criticised by other states for his rhetoric about the IGC. However, Mr Westendorp said Mr Davis was very constructive inside meetings, but presented this differently in public. "Inside he acted like Douglas Hurd, and outside like Michael Portillo."

Defence and foreign policy will be one of the main subjects on the IGC agenda. But the pattern of likely progress seems to be much more cautious than was hoped by the more integrationist states at the time of the Maastricht treaty. More links will be created between the EU and the Western European Union, the 10-member defence body which is the chosen carrier of Europe's military ambitions. A new organisation will be created to analyse and plan for security problems. It may be made easier for groups of states within the EU to go ahead with foreign-policy initiatives when others are reluctant. But this is far short of the most ambitious plans of 1991.

Britain could happily live with most of this. The Government put forward plans for European defence earlier this year, and it seems to be these proposals around which positions are being set out. "To a great extent, these ideas coincided with those of other states," Mr Westendorp said.

Britain opposes any extension of majority voting over foreign policy. Yesterday Mr Westendorp said several states held the same position. Instead, ideas about "constructive abstention" - where states would agree not to block initiatives, but would not participate either - are being discussed.

A new post of foreign-policy tsar, or "Mr X", is being mooted to give the EU more direction and visibility, said Mr Westendorp. This would help provide an answer to the old question posed by Henry Kissinger, who said: "What is Europe's telephone number?" But this should not lead to yet another institution, or more complications."We do not want to create a figure who might be a Frankenstein's monster."

Though several states want the WEU to be integrated into the EU, making it a fully fledged defence body, a majority oppose this. Some, like Britain and France, oppose anything that might tie their hands. Others are neutral, and fear that their position would be compromised.

Mr Westendorp said that a new date might be set for the re-examination of defence and foreign policy, perhaps after the year 2000, when the next phase of enlargement will be under way. "The door should not be closed to integration," he said.