Britain faces tougher time blocking EU

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The Independent Online
THE debate over Britain's ability to resist the tide of European Union legislation is charged with raw political emotion over sovereignty and the ever-encroaching reach of Brussels into national life.

In practice, however, the issues are much more mundane, and when enough governments are opposed to the standardising and harmonising enthusiasm of officials in Brussels, proposals do not even get put to a vote.

But because of the Conservative Government's high-profile opposition to any legislation going beyond greasing the wheels of commerce or easing competition, Britain can expect to find itself on the losing end of more arguments in the Council of Ministers.

The Government has an impressive record for either stopping in its tracks EU legislation it does not like, or altering the proposals so much that they are almost unrecognisable by the time they emerge from the Council.

One of its recent successes was seeing off an attempt by the anti-smoking lobby to get legislation banning all tobacco advertising across the EU.

Another success was in gutting data protection proposals which would have severely restricted the mail order industry's ability to compile information on prospective customers. The legislation is still in the pipeline, but nowhere near as sweeping as originally envisaged.

Britain also opposes proposals aimed at protecting the interests of consumers if they buy defective goods or services in other EU countries, and is against Europe-wide environmental standards on everything from beaches to tap water.

Majority voting is now the rule for new legislation on education, employment practices and vocational training, along with a myriad health and safety issues. And the bad news for the Government is that most of its EU partners feel it is smart to set common standards for these issues.

If there is disagreement on legislation, it lingers in a twilight zone where lawyers and officials try to bridge the differences between governments until agreement can be reached.

A classic example is the draft directive on company law which would require publicly-quoted companies to have worker directors on their boards. It is blocked because of opposition from Britain, which says it goes too far, and by Germany and Denmark, each for different reasons. In an enlarged EU, however, Britain will probably be outvoted.

Because of the secrecy with which decisions have been taken by the Council of Ministers until recently, it is hard to know when the UK has ever been outvoted in the past and who outvoted whom.

Insiders say that the UK has probably only been outvoted three or four times in recent years and then on such issues as additives in processed food and baggage handling at airports. Thus, when Britain found itself alone in objecting to a directive on pregnant workers, it abstained rather than be steamrollered by voting against.

But when the Twelve ignored Britain's opt-out from the Social Chapter Britain voted against and challenged the decision in the European Court in Luxembourg.

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