Europe sets course for a new union

Turin Conference: John Major on the defensive as BSE overshadows plans to take the continent into the next millennium
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The Independent Online
Declaring their determination to set the agenda for the EU until the end of the century, European leaders yesterday launched their reform conference in Turin, starting the tortuous process of re-shaping their union.

But hopes that Turin would strike a resounding note of unity were undermined by the need to solve the British beef crisis, which threatened to produce deep new divisions between Britain and its European partners. John Major, who had hoped to present the British arguments against further European integration from a position of strength, found himself on the defensive as he pleaded with his partners for their solidarity over beef.

He rejected suggestions that he was under pressure to make concessions on such questions as reduction of the British veto in return for compensation for British farmers. The two issues were "entirely separate". Furthermore, Mr Major showed no willingness to soften his key demands for the Inter- Governmental Conference. "Britain sees no case whatsoever for the extension of qualified majority voting," he said. And Mr Major signalled he would fight long and hard to reverse the recent European Court opinion on maximum working hours, by calling for a key treaty article to be re-written. He accused his partners of acting in bad faith by allowing a loophole in the Maastricht treaty to be used to bring forward the measure calling for a maximum 48-hour working week.

However, as European leaders declared "solidarity" with Britain over the crisis, there were suggestions the episode should teach it a lesson about its need to enter wholeheartedly into the European venture. "Britain needs to begin to think of Europe not as a place out there but as a place they are very much a part of," John Bruton, the Irish Prime Minister, said.

Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany sought to move the ambitions of the summit to a higher plane by saying the real aim of integration was "to provide peace and freedom in the 21st century". The leaders all reaffirmed determination to rebuild Europe's institutions to be ready to accept new members from Eastern Europe.

"Future enlargement, which represents a historic mission and a great opportunity for Europe, is a challenge for the Union in all its dimensions," the final statement read. The conclusions detailed the tasks which now lie ahead for the IGC, which will last at least a year. The paper was couched in cautious language, which will please Britain, leaving the most contentious issues open for negotiation. "I am very pleased at the outcome of the meetings today. We have agreed a non-prejudicial agenda which gives Britain a free hand to promote its objective to build Europe as a partnership of nations," Mr Major said.

While stressing the need to develop more coherent policies in areas such as justice and home affairs, as well as foreign policy and defence, the statement did not tackle the contentious issue of whether to give Brussels more power.

For the first time at a European summit, the statement proposed that member-states should formally consider "flexible geometry", allowing some to proceed towards integration faster than others. However, the proposals on this issue were also vague enough to leave wide room for negotiations.

In a section on employment which could worry Britain, the statement referred to the need for "social protection" and "better co-ordination and co- operation in order to strengthen national policies". In private discussions during the meeting, Mr Kohl proposed a "mini-summit" before the end of the year at which European leaders would discuss plans to promote employment and social protection. Britain would almost certainly oppose holding such a summit, fearing it could lead to more efforts to promote Europe-wide social legislation.

The conclusions struck a cautious tone on how to strengthen the European parliament and raised the issue of how to give national parliaments a "collective role" in overseeing European decision-making. On foreign policy, Turin signalled willingness to create a European foreign-policy supremo to represent the Union in future. However, the language on a "common defence" contained little that was new.

Despite the non-contentious nature of the opening statement, the battle- lines for the IGC are already drawn and hard-fought negotiations on reforming European decision-making will begin next week. Several European leaders have already made clear their hope that a more pro-European Labour government will be in power in Britain by the time the final outcome of the reform programme is decided.