EC gloom points to summit 'success'

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The Independent Online
EUROPEAN Community foreign ministers fly to Brussels today for two days of intensive talks designed to unravel, in time for the Edinburgh summit on Friday, the problems that threaten to scupper the Maastricht treaty.

It is a mark of just how high the stakes have become that no one is prepared to talk about possible solutions. Expectations are not high, which paradoxically makes a 'successful' outcome more likely. An EC official said: 'In this climate, for the summit to be deemed a success there merely has to be agreement among the Twelve that it has not been a failure.'

To this end, there has been a tacit agreement to play down any differences over the Gatt deal struck between the EC and the United States. Agriculture ministers will hear the EC Commission's report on the subject tomorrow, but since there is nothing that requires a decision, the French may be expected not to voice their known objections too loudly either in Brussels or Edinburgh.

It will be a week of walking on eggshells. None the less, in this ultimate jeux sans frontieres there is, as they say, 'everything to play for', though it is, of course, no game. The British government, severely criticised by the other 11 for a lack of team spirit and using the EC presidency for self-serving ends, last week played its joker in the form of a paper outlining the arrangements by which Denmark might be enticed back.

This proposal will be discussed tomorrow. For many delegations the British proposals break the spirit of Maastricht. The treaty makes clear the distinction between policies that should be decided within a Community framework by the EC institutions (for example, trade and commerce), and those to be dealt with government-to-government (foreign affairs). But it is flexible enough for it to be possible for the EC to assume some inter-governmental responsibilities should the Twelve unanimously deem it desirable.

In trying to accommodate Danish objections to the third phase of monetary union (the establishment of a single currency), the prospects of a common security and defence policy, and the concept of citizenship, many member states complain too much has been surrendered.

Britain believes its solution to be legally possible and politically practical but admits, in the words of one diplomat: 'It will be a difficult tightrope to tread and we could fall off either side, but in the end the others are confronted with the harsh logic that we are trying to save the Maastricht treaty and they will have to make a judgement about how far we can compromise to do that.'

The Community's future financing plans are the other side of the Danish coin. A five-year budget has to be decided: Denmark's role as a creditor and beneficiary of those funds is clearly crucial. In this debate, the role of Spain is vital. Madrid is pressing hardest for additional regional spending and for the new 'cohesion fund' to be big enough to help the EC's four poorest members.