Hurd tells EC to do less, but to do it better

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THE European Community must attempt less and accomplish better what it does attempt, Douglas Hurd told the European Parliament during a stormy meeting in Strasbourg yesterday.

In a speech setting out Britain's priorities for its six-month presidency of the Community in the second half of the year, the Foreign Secretary said that he believed the EC had in the past had 'too many meetings, too many documents and too little real discussion'. He added: 'I do not believe in the optimistic rhetoric which sometimes makes our Community suspect in the eyes of its citizens.'

Reiterating the government's view that Denmark should not be railroaded because of its refusal to ratify the Maastricht treaty in the referendum last month, Mr Hurd insisted that now was 'a time for quiet diplomacy, not for noisy exhortation'.

The seven priorities on which he said that Britain would concentrate during its presidency are the future of the Maastricht treaty, completing the single market, sorting out the Community's finances, producing a Gatt (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) deal, preparing to admit new members, setting relations with the former Soviet Union on a better footing, and addressing the Yugoslavia crisis.

But Mr Hurd failed to clarify why, given his minimalist view of what the Community ought to be up to, Britain had participated in the negotiation of an extension of the Community's powers at Maastricht last year.

Britain was attacked by numerous members of the Parliament for its opt-out from the social provisions of the Maastricht treaty and its reserving the right not to come into the monetary union. 'You have the right to refuse,' said a member of the parliament's Socialist Group, 'but you don't have the right to impose your minimalist view of Europe on the rest of the Community.'

The parliament, many of whose members are in favour of a broad interpretation of the EC's powers, gave a hostile reception to what it saw as a British presidency that proposes to focus on subsidiarity, free trade and foreign policy at the expense of social policy. 'We cannot turn our Community into a club of rich merchants taking advantage of world markets,' said one member. 'And we will become tougher until you change your tune.'

Mr Hurd was also told during the debate that subsidiarity as Britain understood it was 'a perverse concept' and an attempt to re-nationalise policies that must be dealt with at an international level. 'It's not logical to quote subsidiarity and then use it as a refuge for national egotism,' said another member.

British officials yesterday rejected the parliament's hostile characterisation of British priorities for the coming months, and in particular the criticism that the government is keen to see power devolved from Brussels to national capitals but unwilling to countenance further devolution to local levels.

'We're bringing subsidiarity to hospitals and schools,' said a source close to Mr Hurd after the debate. 'A hospital trust and a grant-maintained school are prime examples of subsidiarity in action.'