THE SINGLE CURRENCY DEBATE : Rifkind rules out a federal future

Europe divided: Conservative leaders go on the offensive, arguing against greater integration and the Social Chapter

Malcolm Rifkind, the Foreign Secretary, criticised Britain's European Union partners yesterday for trying to impose excessive change on the EU, claiming there were limits to most Europeans' enthusiasm for greater unity. In a speech notable for its attacks on several important EU projects, Mr Rifkind said Britain saw little need for the EU to take more decisions by majority vote rather than by inter-governmental consensus.

"We need to show people that we are not in a state of perpetual revolution," he told the Swedish Foreign Policy Institute in Stockholm. "I do not believe this pace of change can be sustained."

Mr Rifkind's speech was the first in a series in various EU capitals to promote understanding of the Government's resistance to deeper integration. In this context Sweden was a logical first stop, since both the Social Democratic government and public opinion oppose steps to closer unity that could erode national sovereignty.

His speech sounded more sceptical in tone than remarks which John Major made after hosting a Downing Street lunch yesterday for Alain Juppe, the French Prime Minister. "In many of the European matters, we have a common view. In others ... we have a different view at present. We are trying to see to what extent we can bring the divergent views together," Mr Major said.

Mr Juppe said he believed monetary union was certain to proceed, as planned, in January 1999. "We also think it will be in the interests of all our partners, especially Great Britain, to join us," he said.

Mr Rifkind claimed Britain had no "knee-jerk hostility" to the EU, but believed that co-operation should prevail over integration - an unpopular view in other EU capitals, where governments point out that an EU with 20 or more members, including the new democracies of central and Eastern Europe, will break down unless it takes more decisions by majority vote.

Challenging an image that is often conjured up by Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany, Mr Rifkind said that some leaders acted as if the 15-nation group were a bicycle that must continue to move forward or else fall over. This image was misleading, he said, because "no person or bicycle ever embarks on a journey that has neither end nor rest".

After his speech, Mr Rifkind took to task Mr Kohl, President Jacques Chirac of France and other EU leaders for denying that they wanted a "United States of Europe" while calling for a single currency and a common foreign and defence policy. "What is the difference between the kind of Europe that would create and a federal Europe? Federalists must admit what they are," he said.

However, his use of "federalism" to mean centralisation and unaccountability highlighted the differences between Britain and most other EU countries. For many EU states, especially Germany, which is a federal republic, "federalism" is synonymous with decentralisation, democracy and regional rights and does not imply government by an overbearing bureaucracy in Brussels.

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