Britain to Propose Shifting EC Power To Legislatures

BRITAIN'S leader thinks he may have found a way of repairing the damage done to European unity by Denmark's rejection of the Maastricht Treaty.

Prime Minister John Major has asked his officials to examine the possibility of adding a special protocol to the treaty that would underline the need to avoid giving too much power to the European Commission in Brussels and devolve it instead to national parliaments.

Under pressure from Margaret Thatcher, the former premier, who plans to lead a parliamentary campaign against the treaty, Mr. Major is considering putting such a proposal before an EC summit meeting in Lisbon this month, government sources say.

The prime minister also has been told by a dozen government ministers (including two members of his Cabinet and 70 backbench Conservative members of Parliament, or MPs) that they are unhappy with the treaty as it stands.

Britain will assume a six-month presidency of the European Council of Ministers on July 1. It hopes to use its presidency to promote a solution to the Danish debacle.

The Thatcher campaign opposing Maastricht will be mounted from the House of Lords where Major's predecessor is about to take a seat, styling herself as Baroness, or Lady, Thatcher.

Major is examining the idea of modifying the Maastricht Treaty amid indications that most Britons have their doubts about Maastricht and want to express their views in a referendum.

Close friends of Lady Thatcher say she and former Cabinet colleagues opposed to the treaty would fight a bill now before Parliament intended to ratify the Maastricht accords.

Major postponed a debate on the bill when the Danish people refused to ratify the Maastricht Treaty. Parliamentary sources say the bill is unlikely to come before the House of Commons again until September or October.

In a series of highly publicized speeches and articles this year Lady Thatcher has attacked the treaty and sought to persuade Major to accept her arguments. She called the Danish referendum "a triumph of democracy over bureaucracy."

It was reported on June 9 that two Cabinet ministers, Peter Lilley and Michael Portillo, had attended a private meeting of a dozen ministers who want to see the Maastricht Treaty changed.

EARLIER 70 Conservative MPs signed a motion saying the government should use the decision to postpone debate on the ratification bill "to make a fresh start with the future development of the EC."

An opinion poll carried out by Market and Opinion Research International indicated that three out of four of those interviewed wanted the opportunity to vote on Maastricht. A 4-to-1 majority wanted Major to return to the negotiating table and work out different terms.

The prospect of Lady Thatcher leading an anti-Maastricht revolt against the policies of her successor creates an unprecedented situation, a senior Conservative Party member said.

"Under normal circumstances the Lords is not a particularly good platform for opposing legislation," the MP says. "Lady Thatcher however has great authority, and she will have powerful and vocal support from former colleagues."

The MP said opposition to the ratification treaty was growing and that Major's room to maneuver was shrinking.

The exact formula Britain will adopt to try to rescue the Maastricht Treaty is unlikely to emerge for a week or two. But government sources say one possibility was a protocol or addendum spelling out curbs on the power of Brussels and giving the curbs legal force.

The principle known as subsidiarity lies at the root of the latest British thinking. Subsidiarity means devolving powers of decision wherever possible to national parliaments, rather than to the Brussels Commission.

If Major can persuade the other 11 EC countries to entrench the principle more deeply in the Community's constitution, he may stand a good chance of heading off the criticisms of Lady Thatcher and others.

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