Rifkind spoils EU party with sceptical attack

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The Independent Online
Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, yesterday erupted with fury at the European Union's 40th anniversary meeting in Rome, attacking new plans for power-sharing as "totally unacceptable".

In one of his most scathing attacks on European integration, Mr Rikind accused his partners of planning another "lurch in a federalist direction" by proposing to give Brussels sole control over immigration and justice, and laying designs for a European defence body.

Speaking during discussions on a new draft treaty, to be signed in Amsterdam in June, Mr Rifkind described plans to increase qualified majority voting within the EU as "hostile to the principle of democracy".

The Foreign Secretary's words soured the mood at the anniversary meeting, held to mark 40 years since the signing of the Treaty of Rome.

The Dutch, who hold the EU presidency, had hoped that progress on the draft treaty could be secured at Rome, to make sure that the text is ready for signature in three months time. The Italian hosts had also made elaborate efforts to mark four decades of glorious union, and to encourage the 15 member states to "keep travelling the same path".

However, no sooner had the foreign ministers taken their seats in the Campidoglio, Rome's town hall, to map out such a path, than Mr Rifkind launched his attack. The Foreign Secretary then left the meeting to repeat his criticisms to the waiting press,

While the British onslaught caused irritation to other foreign ministers, they all were aware that the display was staged as much for British voters as for the company in Rome. Mr Rifkind dawdled in front of British television cameras, granting interviews to all comers, while his partners continued their negotiations.

Jacques Santer, the President of the Commission, said the other member states viewed the performance as "campaigning". He added: "We will have to wait until after the election."

Nevertheless, Britain's partners know they cannot afford to dismiss Mr Rifkind's attack so lightly, as the threat of a British veto could scupper the Amsterdam treaty.

The Foreign Secretary's critique of the draft treaty was detailed and rigorous and will set the tone for Britain's domestic debate on European integration as the general election campaign intensifies.

Labour will come under pressure to match some of Mr Rifkind's criticisms of European plans in order to avoid being attacked as soft on Europe. And if elected, Labour may find itself equally unable to make concessions at Amsterdam.

While Mr Rifkind clearly had his own electorate in mind yesterday, it is clear the Government was taken aback by the far-reaching measures contained in the draft treaty.

The Foreign Secretary described the entire approach of the draft as a betrayal of the principles set down at Maastricht. He recalled that at Maastricht it was agreed that key areas of European policy-making, such as immigration and criminal justice, foreign policy and defence, would be decided through loose co-operation and would not be brought under the direct control of EU institutions. Plans to give Brussels power over immigration and justice would "in practice mean that Britain's immigration policy or asylum policy could simply be overruled by a majority vote in the council of ministers," he said. "It does not need me to tell you that such proposals are totally unacceptable and should be unacceptable to other countries as well."

The Foreign Secretary made it clear that the proposal from other member states to allow Britain to "opt out" from plans to abolish internal border controls would not deal with British objections on immigration and justice issues. The Government would still fiercely oppose the integration of immigration and justice policy into EU structures as a threat to national sovereignty.

Revised Franco-German plans to give the EU powers over defence policy, including, in the long run, powers to command forces, were also rejected by Mr Rifkind. The plans, which also worry some other member states, particularly the neutral countries, envisage the incorporation of the Western European Union (WEU), the EU's institutional defence arm, into the Union itself.

Mr Rifkind said if the WEU were to become part of the European Union, the EU would be adopting "a commitment to go to war if a member state is attacked or invaded". Handing new defence powers to the EU would threaten the stability of Nato and hinder the expansion of the EU to the east, the Foreign Secretary warned.

Relations with Russia could also be damaged if the EU turned itself into a defence organisation, Mr Rifkind said.

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