Leading Article: Britain's shaky European voice

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The Independent Online
THE British government has been in the vanguard of countries pressing for enlargement of the European Union - first to include the remaining countries of Western Europe, and then to embrace the new democracies of Eastern Europe. Partly thanks to its consistent pressure, negotiations were recently completed on entry terms for Sweden, Finland and Austria: those with Norway are held up only on the question of fishing rights. Yet Britain now seems prepared to jeopardise this historically important exercise simply to defend its ability to block decisions within the EU's council of ministers.

At a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Brussels today, a final attempt will be made to resolve both these issues. To objective observers it must surely seem logical that as the Union expands, its decision- making procedures have to be streamlined to avoid blockage by an obstructive minority. With more members, more should have to vote together to gainsay the majority. Yet Britain, with some support from Spain, clings desperately to the status quo.

Under this, a country's votes are weighted roughly in proportion to its population. If two large countries make common cause with a small one, they can frustrate the rest on those topics - the environment, health and safety, and the single market - to which 'qualified majority voting' (QMV) applies. Under the proposal that Britain is resisting, the minimum would be increased from 23 votes to 27, notionally allowing countries with 41 per cent of the EU's total population to be outvoted. For comparison, the last three Conservative governments were elected by 23 or 24 per cent of the UK population.

The Government likes to make out that it has not just Britain's interests but also those of other member states at heart: the EU must be seen to be democratic. Yet it is odd that both France and Germany, whose voting power was not increased after unification, seem happy with the proposed change. So do the small countries most likely to be outvoted.

They no doubt realise that there will be increased pressure within an enlarged Union for decision- making to be delegated to member states, in keeping with the principle of subsidiarity. When collective decisions are required, the Germans and French seem confident that they will be able to secure the right ones. Why do the British lack that confidence?

The depressing truth is that once again the Government's posture is being dictated not by this country's broader national interests, but by a minority of Europhobe Tory MPs to whom any further marginal surrender of sovereignty is anathema. Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, should accept a solution today that shows he appreciates which is the more important.

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