EU national veto must go, Santer warns Britain

In a direct challenge to Britain, Jacques Santer, President of the European Commission, yesterday called for an end to the use of the national veto, saying the European Union could not survive on the basis of an " la carte" Europe.

Only by introducing majority voting on all issues, including defence and foreign policy, could the European Union hope to maintain the support of its citizens into the 21st century, said Mr Santer. There would be no room for "opt-outs" - such as Britain's on social policy.

Mr Santer was announcing publication of the Commission's outline proposals to be tabled at next year's intergovernmental conference when the EU will meet to revise and reform its institutions.

As the conference approaches, Britain appears to be heading for confrontation with the Commission and many of its European partners over some of the proposed reforms, in particular the extension of majority voting. The announcementavoided addressing any of the proposals for reform in detail. The Commission issued an explanatory document which said Brussels wanted to present a more acceptable and accessible face to the people of Europe.

"Our Europe suffers from a lack of comprehension.There is too great a distance between the citizen and the centre of decision-making," it said. Mr Santer also tried to forestall accusations of Brussels power-grabbing by insisting that his reforms were necessary to greater efficiency in EU decision-making.

The Commission document argued that majority voting would become a necessity once the EU accepted more members from Eastern Europe. If the right to veto remains once the EU numbers not 15 but 25, decision-making might collapse.

However, if greater majority voting is introduced, within the EU, national governments and parliaments will have less final control over EU decisions. Brussels is believed to be considering ways of defusing the likely outcry in Britain and elsewhere. One possibility - one that was not mentioned yesterday - would be the formal acceptance of the existing informal right of member states to delay a vote on a policy that they believed threatens an important national interest.

What worries the Commission particularly is the failure of the EU to act effectively where it has been granted new authority under the 1991 Maastricht treaty. This is ascribed to the power of states to wield, or at least threaten, the veto.

This failure to make progress has been most obvious in the areas of defence and foreign policy, and the Commission believes the EU's image has been deeply damaged by the dbcle in former Yugoslavia.

Current procedures have also failed to produce a viable EU policy on justice and immigration, where states also have a power of veto, although the Commission yesterday did not reveal how it envisages reforms in this area.