Pressure piles on EU to slow pace of reform to slow refor in EU reforms

Dublin summit: Low-key meeting hopes to breathe new life into talks on `Maastricht II'
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Europe's leaders meet in Dublin today in the latest of a series of attempts to breathe life into flagging negotiations aimed at rewriting the Maastricht treaty.

The leaders are expected to reaffirm their determination to produce a draft treaty on so-called "Maastricht II" reforms in time for the end of the Irish Presidency in December. However, it is widely expected that today's meeting will have markedly lower expectations about the scope of the treaty.

Furthermore, there is likely to be growing pressure in Dublin for many major decisions on the rebuilding of Europe to be delayed until a "Maastricht III" conference, after the introduction of a single currency in 1999.

A low-key summit in Dublin will please John Major, as the Prime Minister is anxious to avoid conflicts over Europe on the eve of the Conservative Party conference. Mr Major is expected to use the Dublin platform to reassert his determination to call for a review of the powers of the European Court of Justice and changes in the common fisheries policy.

Although European Monetary Union is not on today's agenda, Mr Major is certain to be asked about recent Euro-sceptic calls for Britain to rule out joining a single currency. Any signs in Dublin that other European leaders now wish to defer plans for far-reaching moves towards greater political union will be welcomed also by the Labour Party.

Under the initial reform timetable, agreement on re-writing the Maastricht treaty, within the current Inter-Governmental Conference (IGC), was to have been finalised in June next year. A Labour victory at the general election would give Mr Blair only a few weeks to decide whether to sign up to far-reaching decisions on deeper power-sharing.

Today's mini-summit was called by heads of government in June in order to boost progress in the IGC which was launched in March, and aims to prepare Europe for enlargement to up to 27 members.

The discussions were expected to produce agreement on far-reaching changes to Europe's institutions and decision-making. Among the subjects on the agenda are proposals for an increase in the use of majority voting, more powers for the European Parliament, and more shared decision-making in areas of home affairs and justice, as well as in foreign policy.

However, the negotiations have so far been hampered on several fronts. Political leaders have been wary of hurrying for fear of alienating public opinion which, in several member states, has displayed growing scepticism about the need for greater power-sharing in Europe.

And the task of re-writing treaties and re-building institutions in readiness for the accession of new members is proving monumental. Reaching agreement among the 15 on sensitive issues which involve further reduction in sovereignty is equally arduous.

At the same time, Germany and France, the prime movers in the integrationist drive, have been preoccupied with preparing Europe for monetary union, and both countries face elections in 1998. Paris has led calls in recent weeks for the IGC agenda to be limited, to ensure that agreement - even on a small scale - can be finalised in June next year, well ahead of the French parliamentary elections. The French then favour holding another, broader IGC at a later date.

Helmut Kohl, the German Chancellor, has resisted such a move, fearing that to defer the wider decisions would slow the momentum towards deeper political union.

However, this week Mr Kohl signalled that he too is now prepared to consider the idea of holding a further "Maastricht III" conference at a later date.