Britain accused of U-turn on public scrutiny of EU

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The Independent Online

Britain will face furious accusations of "betrayal" from its European neighbours today as the Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, tries to water down moves the UK once championed to open EU law-making to public scrutiny.

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers Ms Beckett will argue that plans to allow television cameras into almost all discussions on legislation go too far, too fast. She will also suggest that such proposals will force negotiation into informal and private discussions in the corridors away from the glare of the cameras.

The new minister's stance has provoked anger because achieving greater openness was a theme of the UK's six-month presidency of the EU which ended in December. When Tony Blair agreed to the European constitution he backed the principle of transparency which was written into the text. Then, when the constitution was rejected in referendums in France and Holland, the UK argued that greater openness was one of the measures that would help restore confidence in the EU.

One EU diplomat said there was "surprise" that reservations were coming from "the country which was promoting the topic during its presidency".

The package proposed today by Austria, which took over the presidency from Britain, would open up all discussions on legislation which has to be agreed by the Council of Ministers, representing member states, and the European Parliament.

Ms Beckett's aides say she has had a consistent view and is expressing doubts in her new job. A UK official said: "We feel the proposal of the Austrian presidency as drafted goes too fast too soon. Ms Beckett is not against transparency but the risk is that you will end up pushing the most sensitive issues into the margins".

Agreement can only be reached today if there is unanimous support. EU leaders are likely to have the final say when they meet in Brussels later this week.