Major warning on 48-hour week

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If the European Court rules that Britain must conform with laws imposing a maximum 48-hour working week, it will work for a change in the Maastricht Treaty, John Major said yesterday in Bordeaux at the end of the 19th Franco- British summit, four days before the court gives its verdict.

He said it was wrong that the measure had been brought under health-and- safety provisions of the treaty, a case Britain has argued (without success) for several years. If Britain lost, he said, "the same treaty could be used to drive through other things that come under the Social Chapter", so rendering Britain's opt-out from the provisions of the Maastricht Treaty meaningless.

Implying that Britain might consider holding the Intergovernmental Conference on European reform to ransom to get its way, Mr Major said Britain would "bring up the question" of changing the treaty in the ICG and would "expect our colleagues to respond".

President Jacques Chirac, asked for his views on Britain's predicament, appeared to sympathise with the difficulties it encountered with the European Court (and stressed the closeness of British and French views on the need to reform it) but he also made clear France's different approach to social and labour provision. He denied that adopting Britain's more flexible labour practices could help France reduce high unemployment. But France could well learn from Britain's more "rigorous management" of its economy.

Mr Major also cast doubt on the recent forecast from Brussels that as many as 12 countries could qualify to join a single European currency in 1999 and stressed again his concern that the Maastricht convergence criteria should not be diluted.

He said he would be "very surprised if there were anything like 12 countries qualified" on the "strict interpretation" of the criteria.

Mr Major was attending what will probably be his last French-British summit, assuming he loses the election. The proceedings in Bordeaux had a mostly relaxed and distinctly elegiac quality. Aside from an agreement on co-operation between the two countries' navies, there was precious little advance on bilateral or European issues.

Asked by a French reporter whether he considered himself a "real European", Mr Major insisted that he did, but that this included wanting to change policies that could damage Europe "in the short or long term". He went on: "Whether I'll prevail or not with my fellow Europeans, or with my colleagues in the party, I have my doubts."

Proceedings were punctuated by the announcement that Mr Chirac and Chancellor Kohl of Germany would hold an "unofficial" meeting on 30 November at Perigueux, south-western France. The pretext is a gastronomic-book fair, at which Mr Kohl and his wife, Hannelore, will promote the tome they have written. But the timing suggests further co-ordination of the Franco-German position before the European summit in Dublin. A regular Franco-German summit is due to be held in Germany in December.

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