Leading Article: Sticking to a principle

THE SHADOW Cabinet meets tomorrow to decide how Labour MPs should vote at the end of next week's paving debate reintroducing the Maastricht treaty Bill to the Commons for its third reading. Yesterday the party's foreign affairs spokesman, Dr Jack Cunningham, suggested that Labour should vote against the Government. He drew a distinction between the motion, a primarily technical measure, and the party's position on the treaty, which it supports with the proviso that Britain's opt-out on the social chapter and monetary union should be renounced. Dr Cunningham also reiterated Labour's view that the Bill should not go back to the Commons while the position of the Danes, who rejected the treaty in a referendum last summer, remains unclear.

These arguments will not wash. If Labour is for the Maastricht treaty, albeit with reservations about the opt-outs, it should either vote for the paving debate motion or abstain. It sensibly chose the latter course when the Bill had its second reading in the Commons in May. Much may have happened in Europe and within the Conservative Party since then, but the treaty is unchanged. A principled abstention remains the most appropriate choice of action. Most people, at home and abroad, have no comprehension of parliamentary procedures. To them, a Labour vote against the paving debate motion would look like what it is: opportunistic and unprincipled dabbling in troubled waters.

John Smith is the first convinced and consistent European to lead the Labour Party. He is determined to continue the modernisation of the party that his predecessor did so much to advance. Labour's recent party conference endorsed the treaty in its entirety by a heavy majority. For its MPs to abandon support for the treaty would reopen old wounds within the party, damage its overall credibility, and look like treachery to social democrat friends on the Continent.

To shelter behind the Danes is cowardly. Having published a White Book listing various options, and consulted its Opposition, the Danish government is expected to produce a list within days of what it believes is needed to produce a change of heart in the Danish people. This will be discussed with the British presidency, negotiated within the EC's council of ministers and, with luck, decided at the Edinburgh summit meeting in December. A second Danish referendum may then be held next spring. No one knows whether it will be possible to accommodate Danish demands without modifying the Maastricht treaty itself, and therefore reopening the ratification process.

Labour cannot decently shield behind such a lengthy and uncertain timetable. Britain's trustworthiness as a European partner is on the line. So is Labour's credibility. What happens in this country will, moreover, affect what happens in Denmark: successful ratification here could tip the balance in a second Danish referendum.

Whatever precise form next week's motion may take, Labour should follow the example of the Liberal Democrats and commit itself to supporting the treaty's onward passage. With no possibility of the Government losing a confidence motion, to do otherwise risks aligning Labour with the right wing of the Conservative Party - with nothing to gain and much to lose.