Irish warn Major not to attack EC powers

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The Independent Online
IN A SHOT across the bows of Britain's EC presidency, Albert Reynolds, the Irish Prime Minister, has sent a strongly worded letter to John Major warning him against an attack on the powers of the European Commission at this Friday's Birmingham summit.

Mr Reynolds told the Prime Minister in a message released by the Irish government last night that he would have 'no difficulty' with a general declaration to show that the EC is trying to work closely with citizens of member states. But the Irish leader insisted that 'it is not our view that the Commission has generally been too intrusive'. He added: 'Frankly, our concerns are rather in the opposite direction - that the application of subsidiarity could be a pretext for rolling back existing Community achievements or heading off further integration in areas where we see this to be desirable.'

The subsidiarity controversy has created an alliance of weaker and poorer members of the EC, who see the Commission as a protector rather than an oppressor, and who are desperately worried that the attempt to make the Maastricht treaty acceptable in Britain may threaten their standing in Europe for years to come.

Mr Reynolds warned: 'We need to maintain the institutional balance that has enabled the Community to become the driving force of Europe today.'

To give subsidiarity a public relations push at Birmingham, the British presidency has prepared a 'user-friendly Birmigham declaration' to be circulated by the Twelve, which sets out the three favoured British pledges of 'openness, subsidiarity and benefits to the citizen'.

A British official said the document would be 'easy to read, so that every citizen can understand it' and that it would use the word 'we' rather than 'the European Community' throughout. It will spell out examples of how the Commission might achieve greater openness, set in train work on 'procedures, criteria and examples' applying to subsidiarity, and commit every member state 'to bring home to its own population the benefits to the citizen' of the Maastricht treaty.

The British goverment would achieve the latter in part by preparing and distributing to citizens a pamphlet explaining the treaty, an official said. Under the heading of openness, it would call for 'national parliaments to be more closely involved in the European process' to address opposition among those, chiefly in Westminster, who fear national parliaments will be sidelined.

Britain and Germany reacted with enthusiasm yesterday to plans being prepared by the European Commission for an agreement on subsidiarity between the EC's key institutions of Commission, Parliament and Council.

The draft agreement, which Jacques Delors is due to explain in person at Friday's Birmingham summit, represents his attempt to define the problem of the Community's powers in his own terms.

The draft agreement says bluntly that action at EC level should be the 'exception' and at national level the 'rule'. It says Community interventions should be limited to occasions when they are needed, and should be in proportion to the job to be done. Under the agreement, the Commission would also have to show that its activities were achieving more than local action.

A Foreign Office source said last night: 'It's a rather good thing. Some bits in the paper leave us feeling intellectually ill at ease, such as a long section on the 'need for a hierarchy of norms', but we agree with their identification of the problem.' A German diplomat gave the paper a still more enthusiastic reception. 'It assures that everybody is pulling the same rope, that there's no infighting between institutions,' he said.

Politicians in London are likely to see the Commission's concession as a sharp climbdown for Mr Delors, who famously predicted in 1988 that 10 years hence 80 per cent of economic legislation and more than half on social and fiscal matters would in effect be transferred from national parliaments to the Community.

But the warm reception given to the paper by Britain and Germany in the run-up to the Birmingham summit raises questions about how seriously it is being taken as a way of changing the way the EC works, rather than a mere piece of public relations.

The draft agreement would lay down that most limits on the Commission's power would apply only in areas where the Community shares competence with member states.

Where it has the exclusive right to legislate, however - which the Commission defines extremely broadly as the internal market, trade policy, competition law, the Common Agriculture Policy, fish policy, transport policy and future monetary policy - the only constraint on its power to act would be if proposed legislation was meddling disproportionately to the size of the problem it was intended to solve.

The draft agreement also staunchly defends the Commission's unique right to propose new legislation. A further issue is whether the Commission's proposed 'inter-institutional agreement' would be a legal rather than a purely political document.

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