LONDON — A WISE general shuns a war on two fronts, but John Major, the British prime minister, has no option but to adopt this posture as he assumes the six-month presidency of the European Community July 1.
Returning from the Lisbon summit of the EC, Mr. Major told the House of Commons that he was determined to play a lead role in ensuring ratification of last December's Maastricht agreement on the closer integration of Europe, despite Denmark's rejection of the treaty terms. Major said: "There is no alternative to us being at the center of the Community and exercising influence."
But while the British leader presses ahead in pursuit of his vision of what he has described as a "broader, deeper Europe," he will be defending his flank - and his 21-seat parliamentary majority - against dedicated opponents of European union within his own Conservative Party.
Those opponents are being led by Margaret Thatcher, Major's predecessor as prime minister.
Before taking her seat for the first time in the House of Lords, she said: "Maastricht is a treaty too far. I most earnestly hope it will not be ratified."
Britain, Lady Thatcher said in a nationally broadcast TV interview, should "forget Maastricht." The former premier made it plain that she intended to oppose all efforts to have the treaty ratified by the British Parliament.
Holding the EC presidency means that Britain will occupy the chair and provide political leadership to the Community until the end of the year.
Explaining Major's approach to the presidency, his political allies say he is happy with the Maastricht terms, but even happier with Denmark's rejection of them. Britain's approach to the presidency of the EC will reflect this apparent paradox.
A Conservative MP who supports the treaty explains: "The Danes have served notice to Eurofanatics that there are limits to how far the EC should be centralized. They have demonstrated that it is possible for a government to get out of touch with the people it is supposed to represent." he says. "John Major's main aim between now and the end of the war will be to achieve a sensible, workable balance between the rights of national governments and the need to strengthen European unity."
EC states were given more than a whiff of the British tactics and strategy in the days before the Lisbon summit of the EC. Major profoundly disagrees with Jacques Delors, president of the European Commission, over the extent to which the Community should be centralized. But he backed a two-year extension of Mr. Delors's presidential term.
A senior Conservative Party source said, "Mr. Delors knows that the mood of Europe is moving against his ideas. By agreeing to extend his term, we have reminded him that he is a servant of the EC, and that governments wield the real power."
Major told the House of Commons that he intends to use the six-month presidency to press for the enlargement of the EC to include members of the European Free Trade Association - particularly Austria an Switzerland. At the same time, he will seek to block Delors's request for a 30 percent increase in the EC's budget, for at least two years.
He will also do everything possible to sharpen up the concept of "subsidiarity" - EC jargon for individual governments making their own decisions, keeping to a minimum decisions made in Brussels on behalf of the entire EC - government officials emphasize.
A Downing Street source said that at the Lisbon summit Major asked the Commission to cancel existing directives that were needlessly centralist and to ensure that future directives were filtered so that tasks best performed by individual member governments were not done by unelected Brussels officials.
Britain is pushing the subsidiarity concept hard in the hope it will make ratification of the treaty easier, both in the British Parliament and in a French referendum scheduled for the fall. It may also be easier to persuade Denmark either to accept Maastricht as it stands or to approve a modified version if it becomes clear that, in one government official's words, "Delors' wings have been permanently clipped."
The high political stakes involved in Major's determination to oppose the Thatcher line and settle doubts about Maastricht among his own backbenchers was underlined June 28 when it was reported that if Parliament failed to ratify Maastricht, the prime minister would resign.
Downing Street officials denied the report, but the suggestion that for Major Maastricht might be a resigning matter appeared to alter the mood of some Conservative MPs.
A Conservative opponent of the treaty said: "I would not welcome a direct clash between Mr. Major and Lady Thatcher. It would damage Britain and it would divide our party. If it can be proved that the prime minister is achieving a looser Europe, shorn of Delors-style centralism, we would support the prime minister."