France leads thrust for tighter EU links

In a move which bodes ill for Britain, France yesterday attacked plans for new power- sharing in Europe, saying that they were "feeble" and did not go nearly far enough.

As Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, told his European partners that Britain would oppose an end to frontier checks and harmonisation of criminal justice policy, Herve de Charette, the French Foreign Minister, demanded far tougher common measures.

"France will not accept a treaty which is so feeble," Mr de Charette said. "Do we want to take our responsibility together in Europe - yes or no?"

Germany also indicated yesterday that it would like the proposals to be toughened up. Next Monday, at a Franco-German summit, more hard-line ideas are likely to be set out which look certain to deepen John Major's isolation at the Dublin summit where the treaty will be discussed next week.

The French attack came just 24 hours after publication of a draft text, by the Irish presidency of the European Union, which now forms the basis for negotiations on how to rewrite the Maastricht treaty in readiness for acceptance of new member states. In effect, the text maps out the path that Europe should take towards further integration in the next century. The overall tone of the proposals is federal and, in some places radically so. But, in order to maintain a semblance of consensus the Irish drafters have left many sensitive issues open to discussion. It is the vagueness of the plans that has annoyed some member states.

At a meeting of foreign ministers in Brussels yesterday, the first to discuss the text, Mr Rifkind made it clear that Mr Major would oppose most of the plans at the Dublin summit next week. In particular, he will oppose far-reaching ideas for establishing a common home affairs and justice policy for the EU. A new British "opt out" in this area is clearly envisaged. Giving the community powers over immigration and asylum would be "positively damaging", Mr Rifkind said.

He also made it clear that Britain would oppose plans to give the Brussels institutions powers to make policy on job creation, which he described as "political". "They would not create a single job," he said.

Calls for the Western European Union, the EU's defence arm, to become part of the EU as its de facto army for peace-keeping missions would be opposed. And Britain would also block ideas for increasing the powers of the European parliament and reduction of the national veto. Mr Rifkind accused his partners of engaging in "splendid rhetoric" about "the moment of truth", but questioned what benefits their proposals would bring.

However, several countries - led by France, Spain and Germany - wanted the home affairs and justice plans strengthened to give Europe new joint weapons in the fight against drug trafficking, terrorism and illegal immigration. In Dublin, Mr Major will have to explain why maintaining British "sovereignty" in these areas is more important than what Mr de Charette spoke of as Europe's mission to counter the "menace of terrorism and organised crime".