Summit endorses move to multi-speed Europe

National veto will be scrapped in key areas to speed up decision-making before the admission of up to 13 new member states
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Europe's leaders yesterday backed moves to create a multi-speed Europe and agreed in principle to scrap the national veto in a host of new areas of decision-making.

Europe's leaders yesterday backed moves to create a multi-speed Europe and agreed in principle to scrap the national veto in a host of new areas of decision-making.

For the first time, hard-fought discussions among European Union leaders produced the clear outline of a crucial set of changes to the EU's treaty, which is due to be amended in Nice in two months. Although much of the difficult detail remains to be resolved, yesterday's summit in Biarritz yielded a new consensus over the need to let small groups of countries which wish to integrate faster than others do so.

The idea was initially greeted with suspicion by Britain because of fears that it would be consigned to Europe's second division, then accepted in principle last week by Tony Blair in a setpiece speech in Warsaw.

With the EU hoping to admit as many as 13 new countries, December's treaty change is essential to speed the bloc's already sclerotic decision-making process.

Pierre Moscovici, the Europe minister of France, which holds the presidency, said there is a "wide degree of support" for the notion that closer co-operation "is an instrument we have to use in the new Europe".

Some believe the idea may still be used by a small, exclusive group of member-states, a notion advanced this year by Jacques Chirac, the French president. But those fears were soothed yesterday by Mr Moscovici, who said "this is not a preparation for an avant-garde", that it will be "inclusive" and will not touch areas such as the single market.

Britain has conceded that the "emergency brake" mechanism, whereby any one country can stop a group of others embarking on closer co-operation, should be diluted. The Government now argues that at least two nations should be needed to block closer co-operation, although Germany and Italy want to go further and axe the "brake" altogether.

The French presidency said there is now broad agreement that the national veto should be ended in around 25 areas of decision-making - half those proposed - although British officials said that it was "not possible to extrapolate that". Most of the accepted changes are technical, and there was no consensus yesterday on the most sensitive subjects, including taxation, social security and justice and home affairs.

In a paper circulated yesterday the French presidency was still pushing for majority voting to be adopted on "technical adjustments" to tax policy and in the "fight against fraud and tax evasion".

It also argued for the ending of the veto in parts of social legislation not directly linked to social-security issues, and to anti-discrimination policy.

There was continued political embarrassment for British ministers over the proposed European Charter of Fundamental Rights, due to be discussed tomorrow.

Keith Vaz, the Europe minister, who on Thursday said the European Court of Justice would be able to refer to the document, changed tack yesterday, saying the charter will have no more legal status than " The Beano or The Sun". Francis Maude, shadow Foreign Secretary, said there was "nothing comic about signing away the rights of the British people" and Mr Vaz "should be ashamed of his arrogant and out-of-touch comments".

The European Commission and the president of the European Parliament stepped up their campaigns to have the charter - which enshrines a set of citizens' rights - incorporated into law. There is no prospect of that happening in the near future and neither the commission nor the parliament will play any role in the decision.

Difficulties remained over plans to reduce the size of the 20-strong European Commission, removing the automatic right of member-states to appoint a commissioner in favour of a system of rotation. That was being blocked by up to 10 member-states, including almost all the small countries, which are worried that their influence would be diluted.

Another issues being debated is reweighting Council of Ministers votes. This is seen by the large countries as a quid pro quo for a curb on the size of the European Commission. At present the big member- states send two commissioners, as opposed to one for the small countries.