Britain slams EU fast-track strategy

The Government must maintain the right to veto any attempt by other countries to build a "flexible" multi-speed Europe, Britain told its European partners yesterday.

David Davis, Minister for European Union, made clear at a meeting in Brussels that if other countries wanted to pool powers without the rest, the go-ahead must be given by all member-states. The European Union was "not a franchise operation" he said, adding that the institutions of union were the "common property of all". His comments put Britain at loggerheads with the French and German foreign ministers, who spoke out together in favour of majority voting on issues of flexible power-sharing.

"The key point is more majority decisions," said Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister. "We cannot get stuck. The European motor must not stall. It must keep running, and France and Germany must march side-by-side."

The ministers were speaking after the EU's first substantial discussions on how "flexible" decision-making might work. Flexibility, which would allow some countries to integrate without all member-states, is now viewed as the key to a more workable union.

It has become the most contentious issue on the table of the Inter-Governmental Conference on EU reform, as the talks enter the final haul before the EU summit in Amsterdam in June. In recent weeks John Major has taken a conciliatory line on flexibility, suggesting to European partners that Britain is not opposed to creation of a multi-speed Europe, which would allow Britain to opt out of policies it does not favour.

But Britain appears to have been taken aback by the way in which other member-states - particularly France and Germany - intend to use flexibility to push for deeper power- sharing in areas ranging from defence and immigration to taxation and monetary union.

Yesterday Mr Davis said the Franco-German ideas on flexibility were an attempt to "by-pass" the veto and that was "not acceptable". He said a "majority" of other member-states were expected to support the British position on flexibility.

If other countries were pushed by the British veto into power-sharing outside the treaty, this would not threaten Britain, he said.

British obstruction on flexibility was not the only cause of unease among EU leaders yesterday, as more evidence appeared of concern about progress towards economic and monetary union. Hans Tietmeyer, the Bundesbank president, criticised Europe's political leadership for failing to win the public round to the euro, saying they had been too ready to blame economic problems on the Maastricht treaty.

In an interview with the International Herald Tribune yesterday Mr Tietmeyer blamed European countries, including Germany, for faltering economically because they had failed to react quickly enough to the rising power of Asia, the growth of Eastern Europe and revival of the US.

Mr Tietmeyer repeated a call for strict interpretation of the Maastricht treaty when Europe's leaders decide early in 1998 which countries qualify for EMU. "The treaty is the treaty, and if politicians stick to that, then we will have to select the countries in a restrictive way," he said.

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