Leading Article: High stakes for small returns Tory obstinacy over Europe

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The Independent Online
THE GOVERNMENT's tactics in its bitter dispute with most of the rest of the European Union over qualified majority voting are not easy to follow. There are times when this country's relations with its European partners need to be put before either grassroots opinion within the Conservative Party or its unity. So far the upshot has been to reopen old wounds and emphasise divisions, at the same time doing further damage to Britain's reputation by putting at risk the timetable for EU enlargement.

So the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, finds himself under intense pressure from two sides at today's meeting of EU foreign ministers. On the one hand there is a substantial section of his own party wanting him to defend the status quo. At present, decisions affecting the single market and the environment can be blocked by a combination of two large countries and one small one, mustering 30 per cent of the votes.

Against them will be the other EU states, save Spain, whose governments are united in believing that an upwards adjustment must be made in a community that Norway, Sweden, Finland and Austria are scheduled to join next January. The European Parliament is threatening not to approve their accession if the proposed upwards change is not made.

The Government has long known this issue would have to be grasped before the arrangements for enlargement could be concluded. Whether from incompetence, cowardice or a misplaced hope of domestic political advantage, it failed to confront the party over it. As more and more Eurosceptics began to see the chance for another bout of hand-wringing over lost sovereignty, the issue gained an importance well beyond any difference a change would make. Consequently, anything less than a climb-down by 10 member states will lend itself to interpretation as another surrender by Britain to Brussels. That does not look like far-sighted planning.

Similarly, Tory hopes that acting tough on this issue will bring its reward in the June elections for the European Parliament are almost certainly misplaced. It was one thing to win the last general election by playing on Labour's plans to raise taxes. It is rather more difficult to portray the party as the upholder of British interests in Europe while seeming so much more hostile than Labour or the Liberal Democrats to European institutions.

Nobody likes paying taxes. But to fight a European election on an explicitly anti-European platform risks being seen as a contradiction in terms. The Tories should have learnt that lesson from the last disastrous 'diet of Brussels' campaign. It is unlikely that a single European constituency will be saved by Britain's obduracy over majority voting. Yet much damage has been done by the manner in which the Government has seemed prepared to risk the enlargement for which it argued so long and so convincingly. Whatever the result of today's meeting, it is unlikely the gains will outweigh the losses.