Larger EU sparks argument over control: Britain blocks moves by its Brussels partners for reform of decision-making to accommodate new members

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The Independent Online
BRITAIN was yesterday preparing to face a difficult choice between the public humiliation of having to overturn policy and block the enlargement of the European Union from 12 to 16 members, or climb down on an issue of principle and risk attack from Tory Euro-sceptics for ceding power to Brussels.

Norway is still optimistic it can resolve the outstanding problems on fish and join Finland, Sweden, and Austria as the EU's newest members (national referendums permitting). A Union of 16 members implies subtle but significant changes to the way the EU conducts business. Britain finds itself wedged between a rock and a hard place, forced to choose between preserving the national veto and support for a bigger EU - a policy it has vigorously championed as one of the main planks of John Major's European policy. It was spared the agony yesterday only by the lack of progress on all fronts and a late decision to reconvene the meeting next Tuesday.

Enlarging the EU drastically alters the arithmetic on which voting procedures are based - and votes are power. The issue at stake is political control of the Union and the arguments have rekindled old complaints that the bigger states ride roughshod over the smaller. Britain has staked out a tough and lonely position supported only by Spain, which takes a similar stand for different reasons.

European policy is made by national ministers meeting in Brussels. Vital issues such as foreign policy are decided by unanimous agreement. Other policy such as the environment, health and safety, and anything related to the single market is on the basis of a so-called qualified majority vote (QMV), weighted to reflect population size. In other words, the bigger countries get more votes.

Now, Germany, France, Italy and Britain all get 10 votes, Spain has eight, Belgium, Greece, the Netherlands and Portugal five, Ireland and Denmark three, Luxembourg two. At present, 23 votes cast against a proposal are enough to block it. This means an alliance of two big states and a little one is enough to prevent everyone else demanding that a decision be made EU law. On trade issues, for example, Britain plus Germany and the Netherlands - natural free-trade allies - can effectively veto legislation.

Alternatively, Spain plus Italy and Portugal - known affectionately as the olive-oil alliance - can stop the north from deciding something that affects only southern states, such as olive-oil subsidies.

The inclusion of Sweden, Austria, Finland and possibly Norway (which will get four or five votes each) changes this dynamic. The total number of possible votes rises to 90 and the number required to block becomes (by simply extrapolating the existing figures) 27 votes.

Under this regime, Britain's ability to block will be seriously weakened. For Spain, too, the new situation is potentially catastrophic: it will have to win several more small countries round to its way of thinking to block; an alliance of one big state, plus the Nordic countries plus, say, the Netherlands, could alone shape future Union legislation - even on issues that affect the south but not the north.

Unusually, the British government says the argument is about representational democracy. It complains that if the system is changed by simply extrapolating the figures, the gap between votes and the population they are supposed to represent widens still further. 'It may be legitimate to complain that Scots are over-represented in Westminster, but it is nothing compared to the disproportionate weight of Luxembourg in the Union,' complained a senior UK diplomat.

As things stand, every vote cast by the German minister represents 8 million Germans, but a vote cast by the Luxembourg minister represents 200,000 Luxemburgers. This distortion is exacerbated by adding four new members to the European Union.

One solution would be to change the system altogether, and Germany was last night so exasperated it suggested this might be the only way out of the impasse. But a complete overhaul opens a whole new can of worms, precipitating a debate on institutional reform that is potentially so divisive that all member states are anxious to put it off as long as possible, and at least until 1996 when the Maastricht Treaty comes up for review.

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