Europe battles for Maastricht solution

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The Independent Online
THE European Community is balanced 'on a razor's edge', said Douglas Hurd yesterday as member states battled to find a legal solution to bring Denmark back into the fold and save the Maastricht treaty from oblivion.

EC foreign ministers met in special session to discuss the British presidency proposal for solving the Danish problem. They emerged largely satisfied that the chosen framework was workable after the EC's most senior legal experts confirmed that the British formula would satisfy Copenhagen's requirement that any new arrangement be 'legally binding'.

But as Mr Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, and his Danish counterpart, Uffe Ellemann-Jensen pointed out, it is not up to the lawyers. 'The final decision has to be taken by politicians, not lawyers,' said Mr Ellemann-Jensen, while Mr Hurd explained: 'Resolution of the Danish problem is the key question and the decision as to how to do that will be taken or not taken at Edinburgh, but not before. We all know the stakes are high.'

The room for manoeuvre is small. Luxembourg's Prime Minister, Jacques Poos, said the British proposal was 'at the limit of acceptability'. The Danes are themselves boxed in. Poul Nyrup Rasmussen, leader of the opposition Social Democrats whose support is crucial, has already said the British plan is 'not clear enough'.

Mr Ellemann-Jensen said yesterday that the formula 'does fulfil the need for a legally binding instrument. We can accept the model', but added that in terms of substance, 'certain points need more clarification and precision'.

To that end, Denmark yesterday offered its own amendments to the text. These included a paragraph spelling out a proposed Danish opt-out on the treaty's future defence commitments. In so doing, it made clear that Denmark eschews membership of the Western European Union, the community's future defence arm.

This throws the legal complexity of the Danish problem into sharp relief. Ireland, which is not a WEU member, has no such specific commitment under the Maastricht treaty and might be tempted to challenge any decision that unilaterally granted Denmark this option.

The prospect of a Europe a la carte, with member states free to pick and choose the political elements that best suit their domestic needs without any balancing common obligation was strenuously denied by the EC Commission President, Jacques Delors, last night. To offer Denmark opt-outs was, he said, in the EC spirit of gradual evolution.

The British will today circulate revised proposals to incorporate some points made in discussion yesterday. But the summit decision, as the Danish Foreign Minister put it, 'boils down to a question of political will'.

Britain's suggestions, in the view of several member states, set the precedent for a 'legally binding decision' taken among governments. They argue that because it looks and behaves like the Maastricht treaty - in that it cannot theoretically be challenged in court - this decision threatens to undermine that very treaty, intended as a first step in a communal journey on the road to 'ever-closer union'.

The Germans, in particular, are concerned that the EC may surrender too much to accommodate Denmark. The Foreign Minister, Klaus Kinkel, yesterday pressed for the legal language to be toned down.

Germany has potential allies among EC enthusiasts, such as Spain. A senior British source commented before yesterday's meeting: 'Some southern minds haven't yet grasped that without Denmark there will be no treaty.' That the Spanish Foreign Minister, Javier Solana, was then supportive of the British paper seemed to augur well for the summit. But no one was yesterday prepared to offer a more optimistic analysis than that of Mr Hurd. 'We have made a lot of progress, but not enough,' he said.

(Photograph omitted)