EU reform deal threatens Tory election hopes

French drive to hasten Maastricht rewrite may wreck Major's timetable, writes Tony Barber
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Brussels - France is spearheading a drive to make sure next year's European Union conference on internal reform lasts less than a year, a step that could re-open divisions in the Conservative Party and make Europe an explosive issue in Britain's next general election.

Michel Barnier, the French representative in an EU group of experts preparing the Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC), said this week that the talks should open in March and finish by the start of 1997 at the latest.

The conference's task is to review the 1991 Maastricht treaty and consider reforms to all areas of EU activity, from foreign policy, defence and immigration to the European Parliament's powers and the system of majority- voting in the Council of Ministers, which groups national governments. John Major's government opposes extensive moves to closer EU integration, and until recently Germany and other EU countries appeared to accept that the IGC should continue beyond late spring 1997, the last possible date for the next British election. The theory was that if the EU completed the conference earlier, it could provoke a stalemate, as the Tory government would feel unable to commit Britain to important reforms ahead of an election.

Some officials in Brussels argued that it was better to wait, as Labour might win the election and pursue more pro-European policies.

This view has changed, as it has become clear that the IGC is unlikely to result in a dramatic extension of EU powers at the expense of national governments. "I see no political will among governments for substantial reform," said Elisabeth Guigou, a French Socialist who represents the European Parliament in the expert group preparing the IGC.

France and other countries now say there is little point in a lengthy conference if the results are going to be modest. A conference of two years or more could delay fundamental EU projects such as launching a single currency, reforming the EU budget and opening membership talks with former Communist countries.

Even if the IGC shuns far-reaching initiatives, there is sufficient support for some proposals, such as taking more decisions by a majority vote, to put Mr Major on the spot if other governments try to end the conference before the British election. The Prime Minister has publicly ruled out a diminution of the national veto, an enhanced role for the European Parliament and an extension of majority voting, but will be under pressure to give ground.

Some members of the IGC preparatory team, known as the Reflection Group, think it would be wrong to let the conference be a hostage to the British election, as there is no guarantee that Mr Major will wait until June 1997 before going to the country. The group's chairman, Carlos Westendorp, has suggested wrapping up the IGC by next autumn.

The Reflection Group has held seven meetings so far and will hold another eight by the end of the year, a timetable which allows for a lot more debate before the opening date of the IGC is fixed.

Italy, which will hold the rotating EU presidency from January, is expected to target a date in March or April.

The Government prides itself on having blunted several initiatives, such as integrating the Western European Union, the EU's putative defence arm, fully into EU institutions. The British are also resisting a Swedish proposal to make binding treaty commitments on boosting employment.