Britain Steps Up European Role

Despite renewed Thatcher attack on Europe, Major is set to win approval of EC treaty. EUROPOLITICS

BRITISH Prime Minister John Major is confident that he is about to deal a decisive blow to critics of his European policy who are being led by his predecessor Margaret Thatcher.

In a House of Commons debate this week Mr. Major will ask Parliament to ratify last December's Maastricht Treaty committing Britain to closer integration with the European Community.

Yesterday a senior minister forecast a "handy majority" endorsing the treaty and a "sound defeat" for Mrs. Thatcher, who delivered a savage attack on the EC and those who favor a federal Europe in a speech in The Hague last Friday. Queen's speech pro-Europe

Last Tuesday Queen Elizabeth II told the European Parliament in Strasbourg that Britain wished to play a full part in a united Europe. Her speech, written by Major and his officials, was widely interpreted in government circles as an attempt to preempt Thatcher's criticisms of the EC.

The former prime minister, who no longer sits in the House of Commons and is expected soon to be given a seat in the House of Lords, accused EC President Jacques Delors and other EC officials of wishing to construct "a centralized superpower." She went on to warn about the growing power of Germany.

Thatcher's attack on the EC was similar in tone to her article in Newsweek last month in which she denied that Major was "his own man," and warned him to hew to her own policies or face severe criticism from within the Conservative Party.

Major refused to comment directly on Thatcher's Hague speech. Privately, Downing Street sources said it did not reflect the prime minister's policies in any material respect.

This week's Commons debate is probably the last chance critics of those policies will have to influence the government's commitment to the EC. Compared with the last administration, which enjoyed a 100-seat Common's majority, Major's holds only a 21-seat advantage in the 651-seat lower house.

Bill Cash, a leading Conservative backbencher who opposes the Maastricht Treaty, said last week that many of the 62 new Conservative MPs elected on April 9 share his views. Thatcher and her supporters hope they will either vote against the government or abstain at the end of the Maastricht debate.

Major's supporters, however, say he is certain that enough pro-European Labour and Liberal Democrat MPs will vote in favor to ensure ratification.

In the run-up to the Commons debate, several senior Conservatives delivered bitter but anonymous attacks on Thatcher for the content and tone of her Hague address. One minister dismissed it as "a cry from the unemployed." Another was quoted as saying: "She is no longer a big player in the game. Her influence is on the wane and her reputation damaged."

The Sunday Times, under the headline "Two Ladies in Europe," made a direct comparison between what Thatcher and the queen had to say. The queen, it said, had given "the royal oui" to Europe; Thatcher had delivered "a harangue which appalled many in her audience."

The influential Financial Times noted that Thatcher's Hague speech had "confirmed the wisdom of the Conservative Party in retiring her." Thatcher blocked queen

Government sources said that throughout her 10 years in office Thatcher had blocked suggestions that the queen should visit the European Parliament.

Apart from mobilizing the monarch to add force to his European policies, Major is being careful to ensure that his commitment to the EC is perceived by his own supporters as less than total.

One Tory strategist said over the weekend: "The prime minister is still opposed to excessive interference by Brussels officials in our country's politics, but he recognizes the need for Britain to be at the heart of Europe."

The comment was code to describe Major's opposition to the EC's social charter, laying down minimum employment standards, and hasty movement toward acceptance of a single European currency. He knows that a majority of his own MPs oppose the social charter and are against a Euro-currency based on the ECU.

A Conservative source noted that Major had reason to be irritated by Thatcher's speech in The Hague because of its timing.

"She made it just as it is becoming apparent that the Labour Party is at sixes and sevens on Europe," the source said. "Her remarks tended to obscure that fact."

The main opposition party is in the midst of a contest to replace Neil Kinnock as leader. John Smith, shadow chancellor of the exchequer, is a convinced supporter of the EC, but his opponent Brian Gould, the party's environment spokesman, is skeptical about further European integration.

Major's current strategy on EC policy is to ensure ratification of the Maastricht Treaty and then prepare for Britain's six-month presidency of the European Council, which begins July 1.

The prime minister wants to take up the EC presidency with a convincing Maastricht vote behind him. His officials say that would increase his authority as a British leader pursuing broadly pro-European policies that mark him off clearly from the Thatcherite era when Britain was Europe's odd man out.

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