EC may keep out 'problem' countries: Britain and France make common cause on enlargement and against a European superstate

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A FRENCH proposal to deny European Community membership to eastern European countries until they settle the many bubbling ethnic disputes is being welcomed by Britain and other members of the Twelve.

Relations between the old EC rivals Britain and France are better than ever, and both governments are co-operating on plans to cut the Commission down to size by blocking a whole raft of new initiatives. The conservative government in Paris has radically altered the country's attitude towards Europe, and is now firmly set against the emergence of a federal superstate in the post-Maastricht era.

Paris and London have established an identity of interests on a wide range of foreign policy issues, from handling the war in the former Yugoslavia to keeping the EC decentralised now that the Maastricht treaty is finally on the point of being ratified by all 12 member states. Teams of officials in Britain and France are combing through laws drafted by the Commission, to see whether they pass the subsidiarity test, established at the Edinburgh summit. Paris and London want to rein in the Commission's gallop, by blocking laws that could just as easily be adopted at national rather than EC level.

The French plan for a European security forum, expected to be put to the summit by President Francois Mitterrand and the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, is aimed at guaranteeing stability in those East European countries that want to join the EC or to have economic association deals with it.

France wants to convene a 30-nation conference, including Canada and the US, and to get the issues resolved within a year, but other EC diplomats feel that the timetable is too optimistic.

Exhausted by the horrors of the war in the former Yugoslavia and their failure to broker a settlement, European government needs no convincing of the danger of conflict spreading to eastern and central Europe. Starting with the countries which already have association agreements with the Community, Poland, Hungary and the Czech and Slovak republics, but including many others from Slovenia to the Baltic states, Russia and the Ukraine, the rule of thumb will be that trade and political sanctions - including a ban on EC membership - will be imposed on countries that do not respect the rights of ethnic minorities or start squabbling over borders.

France wants a conference of 30 states, including the US and Canada, to settle the territorial and ethnic rights issues once and for all within a 12-month time span. If, as expected, the Copenhagen summit gives the go- ahead for the plan, it will be the first foray into the common foreign and security policy which is called for in the Maastricht treaty, although few diplomats see the one-year timetable as realistic.

Relations, between the Britain and France, often tetchy in the past, 'have rarely been so good', according to a senior French diplomat in London.