Leading Article: The crotchety committee member

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The Independent Online
IT IS typical of the European Union that a momentous development such as the admission of four new members can be jeopardised by an apparently minor procedural dispute. It would also be typical of the Union if a dispute that seemed impossible to resolve yesterday miraculously disappears by next week. Whether or not a compromise can be found, the events of the past week show that the British government has much to learn.

The dispute arose over how many EU members should be able to veto a decision in the Union's Council of Ministers. Single-country vetoes are available in the post- Maastricht Union for issues of vital national interest. Decisions on matters of environment, health and safety and the single European market are taken by qualified majority voting.

Nations are awarded votes according to their size, varying from 10 for the biggest to two for tiny Luxembourg. Some 23 votes - two big countries and one small - are needed to block a decision. Most EU countries had expected that the threshold would be raised to 27 to take account of the larger number of Council members after the admission of Sweden, Norway, Switzerland and Austria.

Britain's last-minute decision to oppose the change, and to demand that the blocking minority should remain unchanged, is partly a symptom of the Government's need to placate its Europhobic right wing, and partly a misguided attempt to stake out a nationalist position in advance of the coming European elections.

But it is also, more seriously, a sign of the negativism with which too many British politicians and civil servants still view the Union. Motivated by a mistrust of the other 11 members and a conviction that foreigners cannot be argued around, the Government's proposal would make it harder for the Union to take any decision. This sits oddly alongside Tory confidence that Scandinavian instincts will be more to its taste than Mediterranean ones.

Everyone agrees that the EU's creaking institutions need reform if it is to continue to grow. But that reform is being put off until 1996. Meanwhile, there are better ways to protect British interests than the Government's tactics. One such way is to maintain pressure on the Union to take decisions at the lowest possible level - which will keep away from the Council agenda many proposals that Britain might wish to block. The other is to do as the French do: to keep national interests firmly in mind, but work hard to build alliances inside the Union.

Tory politicians may say in their defence that consensus-building is not a skill that is fostered in the tightly whipped atmosphere of Westminster. But Britain's long- term interests will best be served if it acts as a duly influential member of the Union - not as a crotchety obstructionist, making trouble at committee meetings.