European Elections: Sinned against and sinning parties respond to their EU catechism: Andrew Marshall in Brussels asks who will make ground in the crucial debate in today's European elections

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The Independent Online
Q: What are the seven deadly European sins?

A: According to John Major, the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties are guilty of pressing for more regulation, the Social Chapter, a single currency, the levelling-up of taxes, a rise in EU spending, watering down the national veto, and re- negotiating Britain's budget rebate. What a frisson of moral disgust greeted this list of infamy in Brussels]

Q: Umm . . . It did?

A: Well, no, not really. A lot of it seems to be playing with the facts in a cavalier way, to be honest.

Q: Which ones?

A: EU spending is set for the next few years, until 1997, and it would be pretty hard to get agreement on changing now, no matter how honey-tongued a Labour government. Mr Major should know that, since he was responsible for the agreement on spending, in Edinburgh in December 1992. Britain's budget rebate was also secured there until 1997, and it is hard to see why anybody would voluntarily throw that away. By the end of the century the contributions will have come way down.

Q: But what about levelling-up taxes? Aren't Labour the party of high taxation?

A: Presumably that is the image Mr Major wants to create for domestic political reasons. There are no proposals on the table for raising domestic taxes in the European Union, for some very simple reasons. Brussels does not have the powers to tackle it, and other countries would refuse any such proposals.

Q: Aha] But isn't that precisely the national veto that the sinners want to ditch?

A: Nobody is proposing to scrap the national veto, which applies to the most important areas of policymaking, like taxation, foreign policy and immigration. There is likely to be more majority voting whichever party wins the next election, and the Conservatives began that by allowing it to be expanded for the creation of the single market, and for the Maastricht treaty. But in these core areas, there will probably be little change. Even if Britain wanted to ditch its veto over taxation, was desperate to give it away, every country in the EU would have to agree and they wouldn't.

Q: What about the single currency? Isn't there a risk that the next Government will throw away our hard-earned veto there?

A: Britain does not have a veto on other countries creating a single currency. But we can decide not to take part, because of the opt-out agreed at Maastricht. Labour or the Liberals could decide to ditch that if they wanted to, though it's by no means clear what the effect would be. There isn't a single currency to join yet, and won't be until 1997 at the earliest, so nobody can agree 'now' to have one. Every country can decide not to take part if it so wishes. Most will have another vote before they go in, if not a referendum.

Q: So the other parties wouldn't be more in favour of regulation than the Tories?

A: Regulation is one of the vilest crimes in the Tory book, apparently, and EU regulation even worse, up there with genocide. But any regulation imposed from Brussels over the last decade has been agreed by the Government, and nearly all of it has been voted for by a Tory minister. Some of it, to be sure, they wanted to veto but couldn't (because they had already agreed to remove their veto power over large areas of legislation). The other parties probably would agree to extend EU regulation in some areas, because they believe it would be a good thing, helping to protect workers, for instance.

Q: The Social Chapter] Isn't that the worst of the seven sins?

A: Some members of the Conservative Party think so; they pressed Mr Major to get an opt-out at Maastricht. The other 11 EU countries believe it has positive facets and agreed to participate. Virtually nobody in Britain appears ever to have read the thing, which is hardly the Communist manifesto.

It is a rather modest document. Even European employers support some bits of it. It is true that European and British business is very opposed to some EU social legislation, which they believe adds to costs and harms Europe's competitiveness. The unions disagree.

Q: So are the Conservatives guilty of committing deadly European sins?

A: Surely not.

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