The European Elections: Tory attack over EU veto flusters Lib Dem leaders

Colin Brown,Patricia Wynn Davies
Thursday 26 May 1994 23:02

THE Conservative Party yesterday took the unprecedented step of picketing the headquarters of the Liberal Democrats to create further mischief about Britain's 'veto' on decisions in the EU Council of Ministers.

A young man from Conservative Central Office stood under a multi-coloured golfing brolly outside the Cowley Street headquarters of the Liberal Democrats, handing out leaflets and asking all visitors: 'Have you got copies of Sir Norman Fowler's letter?'.

The letter by the Conservative Party chairman challenged Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, to admit his party would do away with the British veto, which the Tories have placed at the centre of their European election campaign.

'You have never been shy to spell this out in the past and I am afraid it is too late to change your position now simply because it is unpopular with the British public,' Sir Norman said.

The tactic of attacking their opponents on the veto has proved a strong card for the Tories, who have the weakest hand in the elections. It is unlikely to save the Tories from losses on 9 June, but it has put the other parties on the defensive. The Tory attack also has forced Labour and Liberal Democrats to defend the veto more strongly than they might have wished.

The Conservatives were accused by Labour of spreading a lie after claiming Labour would abandon the veto on immigration, allowing more foreigners into Britain.

Mr Ashdown told a campaign meeting in Taunton this week that the ability of one country to block decisions in Brussels was a recipe for 'European sclerosis'. But, under intensive Tory attack, he yesterday appeared to shift his party's policy by confirming the Liberal Democrats would retain the veto on 'executive' issues, such as the budget, extending VAT, or the national rebate.

The Tories pointed out the 'executive' veto was not mentioned in the Liberal Democrat manifesto, published on Monday. That states the use of qualified majority voting in the council should be extended and the system reformed, perhaps by the use of a 'double majority', for example requiring three-quarters of the states plus the votes of states representing three-quarters of the EU's population.

Mr Ashdown's apparent shift on policy was alleged to have caused tension in the Liberal Democrat camp. Sir David Steel, the party's foreign-affairs spokesman, was sticking to the agreed party line, that the EU would be 'stultified' if it did not abandon the veto in favour of qualified majority voting.

At a press conference in London, Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat president, denied any confusion. He was asked why the Liberal Democrats had not sought to campaign positively on the abandonment of the veto?

''We have been positive,' he said. 'We want more qualified majority voting. At the end of the day, you will still have an effective veto, providing you can build a consensus with other member-states. That is a consistent position.'

The Liberal Democrats hit back with a report highlighting divisions between the Tory party at Westminster and Tory Members of the European Parliament, who take a more federalist line.

THE Tories were reported to the Commission for Racial Equality by Labour yesterday for allegedly breaching a declaration, signed by all the main parties before the local elections, to avoid raising the race issuein the elections.

Jack Cunningham, the Labour spokesman on foreign affairs, said Michael Howard, the Home Secretary, had breached the code of conduct at the Tory campaign press conference by attacking Labour on immigration.

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