`Foot-dragging' Britain stalls EU reform

New Europe treaty could be delayed by up to six months

British intransigence in talks about European Union reform may delay important decisions on reshaping the organisation until the end of next year, six months later than expected, say diplomats in Brussels.

Three months after the launch of the Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC), set up to rewrite the Maastricht treaty, talks are stalled, say officials. Britain's reluctance to allow the other 14 member-states to progress towards further integration has characterised negotiations. Although the campaign of blocking EU business, the result of the beef ban, does not directly apply to the talks, British negotiators have been "even less co-operative" since the crisis began. "If we had to conclude our discussions now, it would ... be a conclusion signed by only 14," said an Italian diplomat.

Several states, led by Germany and France, had hoped a positive report on the first three months of talks might be ready for the Florence summit, which opens on Friday. When EU foreign ministers met in Rome yesterday to prepare for the meeting, Lamberto Dini, Italy's Foreign Minister, urged the summit, which concludes the Italian presidency, to give "new direction" to the reform programme. But indications are that delay is possible. Postponing the end of the IGC to December 1997 would alarm Central and East European countries that fear their hopes of early membership will be further set back as a result.

A delay could also prompt new calls for postponing monetary union, due to begin on 1 January 1999. Although the outcome of the IGC is not directly linked to planning for the single currency, most states had anticipated the Maastricht reform would have been completed well ahead of the launch.

But Britain's partners admit delay could have positive side-effects. Many hope that by December 1997 Labour will have been in power more than six months and ready for a more positive role in Europe.

Talk of postponement reflects frustration among Britain's partners at its opposition to key elements of their reform plans. Diplomats say the stalemate has meant real negotiation has not yet begun. Before the IGC launch in Turin in March, Britain's partners said they were anxious to conclude their next round of reforms as soon as possible. Germany and France, in the vanguard of the IGC process, said rebuilding the Brussels institutions and reshaping the decision-making process were of paramount importance, given the necessity of preparing to enlarge the Union to up to 27 members.

On the agenda, however, are issues of extreme sensitivity to Britain, which is being pressed to agree to a reduction in the use of the national veto, more powers to the European Parliament and more shared decision- making in areas such as foreign policy, immigration and justice. John Major has made it clear Britain would oppose such moves in the IGC talks.

The only issue which has seriously engaged negotiators is a plan for greater "flexibility" in decision-making. Diplomats say the need for it has been made even clearer since Britain demonstrated the destructive power of the veto during the beef crisis. Flexibility, in the eyes of most member-states, means allowing some groups of countries to proceed faster towards integration without being held back by others. Britain has long been identified as the "slowest ship in the convoy" and the IGC negotiators are speeding their efforts to move forward, leaving the tardy behind.

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