Hurd faces dilemma on voting rules: The Government's refusal to countenance changes in the wake of enlargement is leading to a crisis in the European Union

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The Independent Online
THE Government must decide this week whether it will compromise on European voting rules and divide the Conservative Party, or delay the entry of new members and antagonise its European partners, especially Germany, diplomats said yesterday.

Britain was yesterday told that the European Parliament would not accept enlargement without a change in voting rules. 'The prospects of the parliament being able to approve the enlargement before elections are slipping away,' said Jean-Pierre Cot, leader of the Party of European Socialists, the largest in the parliament. Unless Britain backs down there can be no agreement, he said.

Next week, when foreign ministers meet again on Tuesday, there will be intense pressure on the Foreign Secretary to concede. But the compromises on the table all involve concessions by Britain. The strategy may be to spin out the debate until after the European elections, even if this means some slippage in the entry of the new members.

The failure of attempts to bridge the gap between Britain and Spain on the one hand and the other 10 member states on the other has raised fears that the European Union could once more slip back into the semi-permanent crisis that has weakened it since 1992.

The 10 EU states do not regard this step as a 'change' in the rules, in the sense of a reform. It is, rather, the shift in voting numbers that always follows enlargement and which codifies the basic rule: where qualified majority voting applies, 70 per cent of the votes are required to pass a measure. The British proposal would raise this to 74 per cent.

The little countries are, of course, at the forefront of opposition to this. Their diplomats note that, in any case, the big countries run the EU and that it is extremely rare for one of the big four to be left on the wrong side of a majority vote. But it is notable that Germany, the largest EU state by far, with the fewest votes per head of population, is keen to see the system reformed, partly because it is insistent that the smaller countries should not be edged out. 'We must not move the church away from the village,' said a German official.

There is some understanding for Britain's problems: everyone is aware that the government faces internal battles over the issue. But it should not be forgotten, said one European diplomat, that every country has internal political problems, and that several would face enormous criticism if they allow Britain to have its way.

There is also a growing impatience with Britain, especially among the powerful countries that control the EU. Germany reacted with bemusement and irritation to the apparent British determination not to allow the size of the blocking minority to be increased.

More explicitly than at almost any time since the Thatcher era, German leaders have pointed accusing fingers at Britain because of its policies on Europe. Politicians on left and right have talked of Britain's stubbornness and called for readiness to compromise on the voting issue.

Klaus Kinkel, the German Foreign Minister, said that he could not imagine that enlargement could be allowed to fail over the issue. There is a widespread perception that Britain has backtracked on its apparent commitment to enlargement, with its insistence that the blocking minority should remain instead of being proportionately increased, as has happened on previous occasions. Chancellor Helmut Kohl has supported Mr Major on a number of occasions, notably at the Maastricht summit. German diplomats have made it clear that the Chancellor feels he has got little in return and that tolerance for British quirks is declining.

The problem will not go away. The row is a foretaste of arguments that will rage when the turbulent 12 and their fractious four new members assemble to debate further reforms in 1996. The basic issue is simple: who has power and who makes decisions?

Andrew Marr & Hamish McRae, page 23