The UK presidency of the EC: Westminster battle 'is key to union': Brussels fears that Maastricht will be scuppered if Labour demands a referendum and British voters say 'no', writes Tim Jackson

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WATCHING John Major at his press conference after the Lisbon summit on Saturday, one would never have guessed anything was wrong. He talked fluently about how useful the two-day European Council meeting of 12 heads of government had been, and how London had got what it wanted from the final communique. He said some reassuring things about Britain's plans for its six-month presidency of the European Community, which begins today. He looked relaxed and fresh, ignored his notes, and even made a joke or two.

But underneath, things are not so simple. 'A month ago, your diplomats and officials were saying that business could carry on as usual after the Danish rejection of Maastricht,' recalled one senior official from another EC country. 'That optimism had disappeared by the summit. In all his interventions at the Council, John Major said nothing whatsoever about ratifying the Maastricht treaty in Britain. Meanwhile, in the corridors, his top officials were whispering that they are far from confident of getting it through Parliament.'

There are rumours in Brussels that Jacques Delors, the President of the European Commission, has told his advisers that he sees as the biggest danger to the entire EC over the coming six months the risk that the British Labour Party will successfully demand a referendum on Maastricht - and that the treaty will then be rejected by the British people. Most experts believe that such a rejection would put paid to European union for years to come. Avoiding that eventuality will therefore be Mr Major's priority over the coming six months. Some in Brussels believe that the vociferousness of the anti-Europeans at Westminster has obscured the underlying fact that, across party lines, sentiment in favour of Europe is as high as it has ever been. If so, the challenge will be to push the treaty through Parliament in a way and at a time that takes advantage of that balance of forces. All eyes will be on Mr Major: will he get Maastricht past Parliament by whipping, or by the free vote that was the tactic used to push Britain's accession to the Community through the House?

Once they have been satisfied on this point, Britain's partners will have little to worry about. When some smaller members of the Community take up the rotating presidency, the worry across Europe is whether they can handle the gruelling programme of 38 meetings of the Council of Ministers. Nobody doubts that British civil servants, known for their mastery of detail and their ability to make sure ministers present a united front, will do a superlative job of organising those meetings and preparing the briefing papers and agendas needed to make them productive.

There is a real question, however, over whether Britain will be able to take to heart sufficiently the dictum of Walter Hallstein, the German who was the first president of the European Commission: 'Our business is not business,' he said, 'it's politics.' The presidency, more than any other of the institutions of the European Community, is about forging compromises. Hundreds of important issues will come up during those 38 different Council meetings between tomorrow and 31 December; the job of British ministers chairing them will be to produce results - something that can be done only by back-room deals. In domestic politics, such things are taken as an important part of any politician's job. But the role will be an unaccustomed one in Europe as a whole. Before and since Margaret Thatcher fought the rest of the EC tooth and claw over the budget, Britain has often been on the extremes of Community opinion. On most of the important issues - from the budget to the question of enlarging the EC, from the single market to the new buzzword of subsidiarity - it remains an extremist. The challenge will be to see whether such British interests can be reconciled with the job of acting as honest broker.

The stakes are high. If the British presidency fails, the Maastricht treaty will lie in tatters, and Europe's aspirations to world influence will be dashed. Even the EC's achievements before Maastricht, most notably the creation of a single market, will be left in doubt. If it succeeds, on the other hand, Britain will have set the EC back on track. By demonstrating an ability to get things done and to get on with its partners, Britain will have secured its own position in the Community.