The Government has insisted that the number of votes required to block EU legislation should remain the same once new members join. All other member states apart from Spain want to ease the conditions for majority voting to reflect the increased number of states. Negotiations on the issue broke down on Tuesday night in Brussels and will resume next Tuesday.
The European Parliament has said throughout the negotiations that it wants reform to ease decision-making as a condition of enlargement. Yesterday MEPs from all parties reacted with anger and key members warned they would not accept new members without voting reform. It would be ironic if Britain, the strongest supporter of enlargement, were to torpedo it.
Other obstacles are being removed. Norway is close to a formula that could resolve Spanish demands to be allowed to catch an extra tonnage of Norwegian fish. Once Norway has agreed to join, with Austria, Finland and Sweden, it will be impossible for foreign ministers to put off the reckoning on the votes issue any longer.
A majority of the parliament's 518 members, 260 MEPs, must approve the results of the negotiations. It is unlikely that the parliament will be in a position to vote before the European Parliament's May session, the last before June's European election.
But without voting reform, 'there is no question of obtaining the 260 votes,' Jean-Pierre Cot, chairman of the parliament's Socialist group, said yesterday. That would delay a decision until much later this year, allowing no time for national referendums before 1 January 1995 - the date set for the new members' entry. Enlargement would be set back at least another six months, maybe more.
The problem comes about because much important EU legislation is decided by a majority vote among the EU's members at meetings of national ministers, with each state's vote weighted according to its size. But small countries already have a disproportionate influence, Britain argues, and this will increase with the addition of more small states.
At the moment, 23 votes are required to block a measure where a qualified majority is stipulated by the EU's treaty - two big states and a small one, for instance. Most EU members want to raise the blocking minority to 27 states to reflect the EU's increased size.
But this changes the arithmetic. States representing 40 per cent of the population (Germany, Britain and the Netherlands, with 154m citizens) could then be outvoted. States representing far fewer (Portugal, Sweden, Austria, Denmark, Ireland, Luxembourg, Norway, Finland, with 45m citizens) could block a measure. This, Britain says, is undemocratic.
The row is really about power. Britain's ability to construct alliances to block legislation would be undermined, and what the Government calls the 'Northern Liberals' - Britain, Germany and the Netherlands - could no longer guarantee a blocking minority. Spain is also blocking progress because the key 'Club Med' states - Spain, Greece and Italy - can only muster 23 votes. Madrid proposes a slightly different formula that would preserve this as the blocking minority by taking account of the number of member states.
The European Parliament voted yesterday to prevent Britain from avoiding restrictions on the use of child labour that other EU members have agreed to. Britain had sought four years' grace before introducing limits on working hours for children and adolescents aged 16 to 18.
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