European fast-track plans will curb veto

Britain and France are on collision course over the way ahead, writes Sarah Helm in Brussels
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An Anglo-French summit which starts today looks certain to be overshadowed by the escalating clash over plans by France and Germany to create a European fast-track towards greater integration, leaving Britain in the slowest lane.

John Major will be told by Jacques Chirac, the French President, that the Government would only be able to block other countries moving ahead without Britain, should such moves be deemed damaging to the British national interest. In other words, Britain would have to invoke the rarely-used and cumbersome "Luxembourg compromise" if it wants to stop Europe pursuing plans for deeper integration

The Franco-German plan for a so-called "flexible" integration has fast become the dominant policy proposal on the table at the inter-governmental conference to re-write the Maastricht treaty. It is viewed as highly controversial by Brit-ain, as the plan appears to be an attempt by other member states to bypass the British veto by creating rules, allowing core groups of countries to club together to share powers, even if one or several other member states want to "opt out." The French believe groups might decide to share more powers in areas such as defence, foreign policy and peace- keeping, as well as justice and home affairs.

Mr Major, who will be hearing details of the new "flexible" integration plans for the first time in Bordeaux, is certain to voice strong objection.

Britain views the plans - known in France as "reinforced co-operation" - as an attempt by its European partners to bring about greater power- sharing, despite British objections.

On previous occasions where other countries have chosen to share powers without Britain - such as under the social chapter, for example - Britain has had the power to veto the move, but has chosen not to wield it, and willingly "opt out". The new Franco-German plan would remove this power of veto. The suggestion that Britain could invoke the "Luxembourg compromise" will be scoffed at by Mr Major as little more than a face-saving offer for the negotiations.

The only course available to Britain for now is to veto the entire "flexibility" plan when it comes to signing the new treaty conclusions, which do require unanimity. However, French officials say the flexibility plan is the "minumum" that France and Germany are demanding in the IGC, and is now deemed even more important than greater majority voting.

Tony Blair, the Labour leader, who visits Paris in 10 days' time, is also expected to oppose the latest Franco-German plan for "flexible" integration. Mr Blair will support the goverment position that the plan amounts to a reduction in the power of the British veto, say Labour Party sources.

The French government appears to be taking almost as much interest in the visit of Mr Blair as in the visit of Mr Major. Mr Chirac knows that it is becoming increasingly urgent to find some ways of including Mr Blair in the IGC negotiations on European reform, given that it is likely to be a Labour government which will sign the treaty at the conference conclusion.