EC's thoughts turn to life after Maastricht: Community faces new battles over enlargement and institutional reform

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN hopes that the European Community will turn its attention to new members and Eastern Europe as the debate over Maastricht ebbs, diplomats said in Brussels yesterday. But France has signalled that the price of this may be a new focus on institutional change, possibly reviving an old battle.

Politicians throughout Europe yesterday expressed the hope that the Danish referendum had brought to a close a difficult chapter. 'Europe was suspended pending the Danish response,' said Alain Juppe, the French Foreign Minister. Though the treaty has yet to be ratified in Britain, and faces a legal challenge in Germany, there is now renewed confidence in Brussels that the way has been cleared for the heavy agenda of work.

British officials believe that with negotiations proceeding to admit Sweden, Finland, Austria and Norway, and fresh plans to broaden trade and political relations with Eastern Europe, the EC has more than enough to do over the next few months. But there are already signs that some member states want to start reconsidering the EC's political structure even before Maastricht is fully out of the way, mainly because of the Community's enlargement.

Institutional change has been put back on to the agenda by Mr Juppe. In an interview on Tuesday, he said an enlarged Community of 15 or 16 could not work in the same way as one of 12. 'We must now start thinking about the neccessary changes to Community institutions,' he said.

He suggested that some countries could take special responsibility for particular issues - Britain, France and Germany for defence, for example. Change might also involve a greater use of majority voting, others have suggested, something that is anathema to Britain.

Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, set out Britain's views on this matter last week to Scottish Tories. 'An increasingly diverse Community of 20 or more cannot work on the same basis as 12,' he said. This meant greater freedom of action for states, rather than binding them more tightly together. Mr Hurd was also discussing change in the context of a 1996 review, which was laid down in the Maastricht treaty. Britain is unlikely to favour any shift before then.

London has always promoted the idea that increasing Community membership would mean a slower pace of political integration: widening means less deepening, in EC jargon. But diplomats say that for many states the opposite is true. One suggested that there may be a revival of the idea to set up a committee of 'wise men' to examine the EC's arrangements. It was fear of the institutional consequences of enlargement - as expressed in a European Commission paper last year - which helped to trigger a Danish 'no'.

The prospect of more political change would not be welcomed at this early stage by other states besides Britain. 'We should make Maastricht work before we embark on any new negotiations,' said an Irish official yesterday. 'The dust must be allowed to settle.'

Britain shares this view, and wants to see the present Maastricht framework established and operating. It wants to ensure that, before the Community embarks on the review planned for 1996, the intergovernmental arrangements established by the treaty have been shown to be superior to federal plans. But for other states, the run-up to 1996 must be marked by an acceleration in the pace of union.

France is one of the few EC countries with a relatively free hand in European policy, since it has a newly elected government with a massive majority. Though British diplomats have been encouraged by the pro-Nato stance of the new government, it is still uncertain as to how far Paris will push its European ambitions. With growing political tension in Germany - France's traditional partner in Europe - some EC diplomats said yesterday that they suspected Paris and Bonn might mount a fresh political initiative later this year.

The chances that the hard-core states of the European Monetary System - Germany, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, Denmark and perhaps Ireland - will move rapidly to a single currency have declined with a Danish 'yes'. But this is still a concern.

Equally, hanging over Britain's role in Europe is the question of membership of the exchange rate mechanism of the European Monetary System. Britain left last September after the pound collapsed. But a report on the EMS, to be presented to finance ministers this weekend in Denmark, concludes that there are no fundamental problems with it, despite John Major's comments about the 'fault-lines' within the EMS.

Re-entry is being discounted by British ministers, but there is likely to be heavy pressure from Europe. 'The first priority is to convince our partners . . . starting with Britain, to come back to the discipline of the EMS,' Mr Juppe said yesterday.