Dutch to unveil plan for multi-speed EU

Detailed plans for a single European policy on immigration and judicial matters and an end to internal border checks will be unveiled this week, opening the way for the biggest transfer of power to Brussels since the Maastricht Treaty.

For the first time, new draft texts make clear that policy on immigration and asylum will not only be harmonised, but brought directly under the control of the European Union's institutions.

The proposals, to be presented by the Dutch government, which holds the EU pre- sidency, also set out rules for an opt-out for countries which are opposed. The offer is specifically directed at Britain which is refusing to end border checks.

The plans also give the first firm proposals for a mechanism to create a multi-speed Europe, allowing countries which want to pool powers faster than others to do so. Such a plan, known as "flexible" decision-making, is strongly opposed by Britain, which fears the creation of a hard-core Europe from which it would be excluded.

European foreign ministers will discuss the plans when they meet in Rome on Tuesday to mark the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which set up what is now the European Union. The draft proposals also examine how to create common policies in defence and foreign affairs and seek to establish more majority voting.

The Dutch government is unveiling its proposals just three months before the Amsterdam summit, when the new treaty is expected to be signed. The Dutch appear determined to press for early agreement on the text, despite the pending British election which is preventing British negotiators from taking any decisions.

EU leaders will be hoping for a harmonious Rome meeting but are certain to find that Britain stands in opposition to the integration plans.

Not only does the Government disagree with many elements of the draft text, but the plans could also bring confrontation with Labour, should Tony Blair win the election.

The Dutch are already pro-posing a mini summit with Mr Blair on 12 May in order to ensure that the Labour leader would have time to sign the Amsterdam treaty on 17 June, should he be elected.

Although many of the proposals outlined by the Dutch are far-reaching, their implementation remains many years away. The most significant plan is the scheme giving the EU the right to make laws on immigration, asylum and internal EU security.

Most member states accept that immigration into the community can only be controlled by joint action. Even Denmark, which has an opt-out from justice policy-sharing, is considering whether to accept the new proposals in the wake of rising asylum figures.

If internal checks are to be abolished, member states believe it is essential that the EU takes compensating measures, toughening its external "ring fence" in order to deter people entering from outside.

The European Commission should in future have powers to propose laws on a common EU visa regime and common rules for reception of immigrants and asylum-seekers. The European Court of Justice in Luxembourg would for the first time oversee implementations of legislation in this area.

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