LONDON — AFTER much hesitation, Britain is ready to widen the moat between the island nation and its 14 partners in the European Union.
Defending his announcement last week to block greater unity with the rest of Europe, British Prime Minister John Major said on Sunday that ''the high tide of centralism and federalism in Europe has reached its zenith and is now declining.''
He has virtually ensured that next year's EU intergovernmental conference will be tense.
Already Mr. Major is trading verbal punches with Jacques Santer, the new president of the European Commission in Brussels, who says strong federalist policies for the EU are essential and that he wants to strip Britain of its right of veto.
If Mr. Santer got his way, Major believes, Britain would not only end up with the pound sterling submerged in a Euro-currency. It would also be pressured to accept economic, foreign, and defense policies worked out by the EU; and to apply EU labor laws in line with the Maastricht Social Charter, which Britain rejects.
Under pressure from anti-EU rebels in his ruling Conservative Party, Major has decided to meet the Santer challenge head-on. He now says Britain will oppose a single European currency and a more politically united Europe.
Major led his Cabinet into a clear anti-federal commitment on Jan. 26, two days before Santer demanded that Britain toe the line and cooperate with its EU partners.
In a keynote speech on Saturday to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, Santer said the EU would ''grind to a halt'' unless it pressed ahead with plans for a single currency by 1997 if possible, and by 1999 at the latest.
Santer also called for a common European defense policy and urged EU states to give up the veto they currently enjoy over measures to deepen European unity.
Santer's comments irritate many British politicians. Major, like Margaret Thatcher before him, insists that British parliamentary sovereignty must not be eroded. Britain has historically spurned alliances with continental nations. It has usually entered into them only for defense reasons.
Major got strong backing from many Conservative colleagues, some of whom have threatened to disrupt the unpopular prime minister's shaky majority in Parliament with attacks on his EU stance, which was formerly more pro-European. Although Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd argued for a softer line, he was outvoted in the Jan. 26 Cabinet session that determined the new approach.
Britain plans to use the veto several ways: on the question of losing the veto itself, on any changes to the majority voting rights that would make it more difficult for Britain to block things it thought were undesirable, and to stop an increase in the powers of the European Parliament.
It appears the British public shares much of Major's skepticism about the EU. A weekend poll for the British Broadcasting Corporation showed fewer than 31 percent of voters favor a single European currency.
BUT if by pushing against further EU integration Major hoped to unite his party on Europe, he appears to have failed.
Yesterday Lord Howe attacked the new EU policy. The Conservative former foreign secretary and deputy prime minister wrote in the Financial Times that British foreign policy was being ''dragged into the ghetto of sentimentality and self-delusion.'' If Britain did not stick to pro-EU policies, it was heading for a ''national tragedy of huge proportions.''
Sir Peter Hordern, chairman of the Conservative House of Commons European Affairs Committee, also warned against an anti-EU approach. He said the government should not rule out a single currency for all time because the French, Germans, and Dutch were likely to create one eventually.
''Since some 60 percent of our trade is conducted with Europe, it is almost certain that much of it will be conducted in that single currency,'' he said.
But Major appears convinced that he can become a rallying point for Europeans opposed to further concentration of political and economic power in the EU.
William Keagan, an economic analyst, says the prime minister hopes to persuade the German and French governments to move toward his position. ''But it is a risky policy, and if it backfires, he could find himself isolated,'' he says.
Mr. Keagan thinks there is also a danger that pro-Europeans in the Conservative Party will fight back, facing the government with more rifts in the House of Commons.
One opinion poll suggests that Major may be onto a winner in seeking German support for opposition to a single Eurocurrency.
A weekend survey conducted by the Europinion organization found that 58 percent of Germans oppose a single currency. In France, however, only 1 voter in 3 is against the policy.