Britain stands alone in asking for changes: The Government was caught in a bind playing two roles at the EC foreign ministers' meeting in New York, writes Annika Savill, Diplomatic Editor

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The Independent Online
IT WAS one of those classic rows about texts that happen at every summit. It was just that this one was more striking than most.

Douglas Hurd and his team were in an unenviable position. As Britain holds the current presidency of the European Community, they had to take on board the desire of other EC governments to push forward on the Maastricht treaty now that the French had finally produced their tortured 'oui'; and as the British government, they wanted anything but to push ahead with the treaty, given the scepticism at home.

'The British are in a bind,' said a French diplomat during the first break in the proceedings. 'They are worried about their own public opinion and Euro-sceptics, but as they are in the chair they have to take in what we all say.'

A British diplomat confirmed the real disagreement was to come when the presidency put the conclusions of the summit in writing. 'They won't be hurrying out of there,' he said. Sure enough, when Mr Hurd and his team returned with the first draft, nobody was in agreement.

Apart from the Danes, sidelined for now from the discussions because of their electoral rejection of the treaty last June, all the others felt the contents of the discussion had little to do with the contents of the text. Not so much in what the text said, but what it didn't say.

On their way out for their second break, officials briefed journalists on two omissions: the text did not reflect the determination among other member-states not to renegotiate Maastricht, and it did not reflect their determination to stick to the agreed timetable of ratification. 'It doesn't surprise me,' said a French diplomat. 'This sort of thing happens at Brussels all the time.'

British officials insisted that Britain had not drafted the text as the British government, but as current holder of the EC presidency. 'Name me one situation,' asked a UK diplomat, 'where a presidency text has been approved first time round?' Maybe so, but the problem with most presidency texts is that they try to accommodate too many opposing points of view, not that they omit to take them in.

Perhaps the British had banked too much on the general mood of introspection following the tentative French 'yes', or perhaps they had been bothered by references of some of the ministers to ratification according to the 'Oslo timetable' - the declaration at a summit in June specifying the end of the year as the target. In the end, the final text agreed by the Twelve reverted to the more flexible ratification schedule foreseen in the treaty itself - the end of the year or any time thereafter.

A Dutch diplomat pointed out an anomaly: how could you have a weaker statement after a French 'yes', as yesterday's was, than after a Danish 'no', as in the case of the Oslo declaration?

The reversal to Article R - an in-built delay mechanism - of the treaty as the timetable got the British, who know they will not get Maastricht through Parliament this year, off the hook, while the insertion of phrases like attaching 'high priority to the speedy and successful conclusion of the process, without reopening the present text', had the likes of Roland Dumas, the French Foreign Minister, smiling like a Cheshire cat. His attendance had not even been guaranteed until the French 'yes' scraped through. At least, for now, he could tell himself the 51 per cent begged, borrowed or stolen by his government had not been for nothing.