LONDON — LESS than a year after his bruising conflict with other European leaders about the future shape of the European Union, British Prime Minister John Major has decided to renew the battle.
Aroused by a call from Germany's ruling Christian Democratic Union (CDU) for a ``two-tier'' EU - in which Germany, France, and the three Benelux countries (Belgium, the Netherlands, and Luxembourg) would integrate faster than the other members - Mr. Major attacked the proposal and sketched a very different vision of Europe in the 21st century.
In a highly-publicized speech delivered Sept. 7 at Leiden, the Netherlands, Major evoked British writer George Orwell by saying, ``I recoil from ideas for a union in which some would be more equal than others.''
A ``hard core'' of ``elite'' EU states, he said, was ``a recipe for disaster.'' Instead, all member states ought to agree that ``some should integrate more closely or more quickly in certain areas.''
Major added: ``No member state should be excluded from an area of policy in which it wants and is qualified to participate.''
Britain's revived clash with its powerful EU partners is more than an argument over words. Major successfully secured ``opt- out'' clauses in the Maastricht Treaty, enabling Britain to avoid a commitment to a single European currency and to reject EU rules on workers' rights.
Elsewhere in the EU - notably in Germany and France - these maneuvers were seen as a reflection of Britain's less-than-whole-hearted commitment to European integration.
Unity or free-trade zone?
In a speech to the Bundestag on the day of Major's Leiden speech, German Chancellor Helmut Kohl made it plain that he was unhappy about British attitudes to European unity: ``Margaret Thatcher wanted the EU to be a glorified free-trade zone, and some people still want that.''
British officials said ``some people'' meant Major, but the prime minister refuted the idea that he wants only to belong to a free-trade organization. ``Britain is irrevocably part of Europe,'' he declared at Leiden. ``But it must be the right sort of Europe. We can achieve it, but to do so, such a Europe must be flexible.''
Prepping for 1996
In precipitating a new argument about the future of Europe, Major has his eye on 1996, when the EU members will hold a conference to revise last year's Maastricht Treaty on European integration. Germany, current president of the EU, wants to ensure that the 1996 meeting reinforces the trend toward political and economic union.
A Downing Street source, explaining the prime minister's assault on the German two-tier concept, said that before 1996 the EU was likely to acquire at least four new members. Major was concerned lest the new members found themselves thrust to the outer rim of the EU. The source also noted that Italy, a founder-member, would be left out of the CDU's ``hard core'' of EU states.
Domestic British politics are helping to force Major's hand in his assault on the two-tier concept and his support for a looser arrangement, in which nations can pick the areas in which they want to pursue integration.
In the House of Commons, the ruling Conservative Party remains deeply split between a pro-EU majority and a minority hostile to any move likely to infringe on British sovereignty. Major designed his stance on Europe to satisfy both wings of his party.
When drafting his Leiden speech, Major was aware also that a group of Conservative Euro-skeptics were planning to join forces with continental politicians of broadly similar views. The rebel group wants to create a right-wing front dedicated to opposing moves toward a federalist Europe.
Michael Howard, home secretary in the Major government, was planning to attend a meeting at Oxford University at which the group intended to draft an anti-federalist manifesto.