Birmingham Summit: Maastricht legislation could be speeded up: British ratification

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A STRONG indication that the controversial Maastricht treaty legislation could be returned to the Commons next month was given by a senior government source in Birmingham yesterday.

In his opening address to the European Community heads-of- government meeting, John Major said he hoped that they would give a 'public boost' to work on subsidiarity - the demarcation between the powers and responsibilities of Brussels and member states. The Prime Minister then added that he would like the new procedures and arrangements for subsidiarity to be 'in place by the end of this year'.

It had been thought that the European Communities (Amendment) Bill would not go back to the Commons for its protracted, line-by-line committee-stage consideration until December, or early January. That would have meant that the subsidiarity package would be in place well before Commons completion of the legislation - in line with a promise made to MPs by Mr Major before the summer recess.

But when that possibility was raised at a press briefing in Birmingham yesterday, the government source said that would hinge upon how long the ratification process took, and he added: 'It may well be that it's not completed by the end of the year.'

There would not be the slightest chance of the legislation clearing the Commons before the end of the year - unless at least a clear month had been given to it. The official statement suggested a surprise, early return of the Bill. That suggestion is in line with opposition suspicion that ministers plan to take the Bill back to the House in the second week of November, clearing the decks of much other parliamentary business, and ordering 'full steam ahead' for Maastricht ratification.

That would please Mr Major's EC colleagues, and win goodwill in time for the regular six-monthly summit, to be held in Edinburgh on 11 and 12 December.

In yesterday's opening statement, Mr Major said that while they all needed to commit themselves to Maastricht ratification, they also had to allay the concerns people had expressed about the treaty. 'We must show, where we can, that those concerns are unfounded,' he said. 'But there may be occasions when we can't show that. In that case, we must be prepared to change our ways, to adapt to meet those concerns.

'For unless we have the people with us, our enterprise will not succeed. We therefore need today to send a positive message that the Community is alive to people's concerns and committed to taking steps to dispel them. We need a clear declaration of political intent, with the promise of substance when we meet in eight weeks' time in Edinburgh.'

Turning to perceived threats to national identities and cultures, Mr Major underlined his strong appeal for action, saying that while no one present at the summit believed the EC posed any such threat, many Europeans believed it, and it worried them.

'And if it were true, they would be right to be concerned,' the Prime Minister said. Their task at Birmingham and Edinburgh was to dispel that worry, and he added: 'The best way to do that is to show that the principle of subsidiarity is a living principle.'