Bad omens for Birmingham summit

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The Independent Online
THE OMENS are bad for tomorrow's Birmingham summit of EC leaders. Economic issues, which Britain wanted to feature, will hardly appear. Subsidiarity, the most important subject to be discussed, is so obscure that Jacques Delors has offered a prize to anyone who can explain it. And though EC heads of government will discuss openness, they will do so in secret.

In a letter to EC leaders, John Major admitted no conclusions would be drawn on the European Monetary System following Britain's inglorious departure on Black Wednesday. 'This will not be a detailed operational discussion, but I hope we can come to some procedural conclusions,' he says. Finance ministers will not even be present at the meeting. There is little hope of any breakthrough on the Uruguay Round of international trade talks.

The centrepiece of the summit is to be a discussion of how far the EC should adapt after French and Danish referendums on the Maastricht treaty. Subsidiarity is to be one of the main themes. In view of the confusion that prevails over this esoteric idea, Mr Delors yesterday offered a pounds 140,000 reward to anybody who can come up with a one-page working definition understood by all. His offer, made at a special session of the European Parliament meeting to discuss the summit was, he said, made in jest, but underlined the serious political problems of trying to lay down mutually acceptable rules for the division of power.

'Subsidiarity is strewn with pitfalls and riddled with ulterior motives . . . We need procedures. But subsidiarity is first a state of mind, it is a regulatory principle,' Mr Delors said. He rejected the idea, favoured by the Germans, that spheres of competence should be rigidly defined. 'For a committee of wise men to draw up a list of competences is tantamount to getting a bunch of experts to redraft the Treaty of Maastricht,' he said. British officials would only say that 'procedures' and 'criteria' should be drawn up.

Mr Delors was defiant in his defence of the Maastricht treaty, saying 'the problems linked to ratification are not really surprising'.

He admitted the treaty was ambiguous in that its monetary goals were federalist while its aims in the field of foreign and security policy are strictly inter-governmental, something that has aroused grave unrest in several countries. But efforts to reform the treaty are hampered by the determination of most states that the treaty must not be renegotiated.

Denmark's opposition parties demanded last Thursday that changes be made. But the minority government yesterday warned that unrealistic demands could push the country out of the EC. 'It is madness to start talking about this already. Of course we want any agreement to be binding but it is much too early to say how this should be done,' the Danish Foreign Minister, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen, said yesterday.

The second theme of the summit is to be transparency, which has got off to a bad start. Mr Major said in his letter he wanted discussion of more EC openness. But Britain has dropped the idea that the summit should start with a public session, with heads of government making five-minute speeches to television cameras. Other EC states saw this as a publicity gimmick, and officials admitted yesterday there were no arrangements for bringing television cameras into the meeting.

The commitment of British officials to the concept of openness was put in some doubt yesterday by their reluctance to discuss proposals. Pressed for specific details, one official would only say that Britain was trying to see 'how far people are prepared to make the reality open'. Pressed again, another said that ideas included making some discussion in the Council of Ministers public, greater consultation, and more efficient publication of the minutes of meetings. The officials cannot be named because British rules forbid this.

In Germany, where openness is the rule rather than the exception, politicians had more practical suggestions. 'It would be a good idea for German television and radio teams to go along to the next meeting of the Council of Ministers - and I can give you all the dates - and say, because you are making legislation we would like to listen and know how the decisions are made,' said Heidemarie Wieczorek- Zeul, European affairs spokeswoman for the opposition Social Democrats. 'I would like to see any minister saying 'No, this is a meeting of the Central Committee' .'

The third subject of the summit is benefits of the EC to citizens. There will be no discussion of unemployment, the issue which tops the political agenda in several EC states. Nor is there clear agreement among EC states about what these benefits are.

(Photograph omitted)