BRITAIN'S refusal to make an unqualified commitment to the European Community is fueling dismay among its continental partners and propelling Prime Minister John Major toward a constitutional crisis.
Behind the crisis is the social chapter, a body of law within last year's Maastricht Treaty on EC unity that creates a framework for workers' rights and is supported by the EC's other 11 members. Britain signed the treaty but opted out of the chapter.
Senior figures in EC countries have been shocked by the British dispute.
In a Berlin speech, Martin Bangemann, the EC's industry commissioner, said countries hostile to a united Europe "should consider whether they really want to belong to this Community."
An informal coalition of opposition British Labour and Liberal Democrat members of Parliament, along with about 30 rebel Conservatives, is threatening to force Mr. Major to accept the social chapter as part of a bill ratifying the treaty.
Major, sensing the likelihood of a parliamentary defeat, on Feb. 13 let it be known through officials that he may be prepared to break precedent by asking Queen Elizabeth to ratify the treaty without the social chapter by royal prerogative, regardless of any House of Commons vote.
A day later, the same officials said the government had no intention of bypassing Parliament. And Major ordered Douglas Hurd, the foreign secretary, to make a statement to Parliament clarifying the official intention.
George Robertson, Labour Party spokesman on foreign affairs, says such a move would create an "uproar" in the House of Commons. Labour scrutiny
The Commons is currently engaged in line-by-line scrutiny of the Maastricht bill. The Labour Party is proposing an amendment that would make the social chapter a part of the bill.
Major insists that negotiating an opt-out from the social chapter was an important achievement. In parliamentary debates on Maastricht he has said British industry could not subscribe to the chapter's provisions and remain competitive in European trade.
Labour and the Liberal Democrats are in favor of enshrining workers' rights. The Conservative rebels who are threatening to vote for the social chapter say they dislike its provisions, but hate the body of the Maastricht Treaty much more.
Last week Major and Mr. Hurd appeared to give the rebels an opening when they said that a government defeat over the social chapter would kill the treaty.
Parliamentary arithmetic does not appear to favor the government. Major commands an overall Commons majority of 21 votes. It would take only a dozen Conservative rebels siding with the opposition to inflict a defeat on his government.
Last November three times that number of Conservatives opposed a parliamentary motion on Maastricht, and the government escaped defeat only when the centrist Liberal Democrat Party came to its aid.
Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, says his members will vote for the social chapter amendment.
Government sources say Lord Tebbit, a former Conservative Party chairman, enraged Major by saying he would "cheerfully vote for an amendment saying the moon was made of blue cheese" if it would "wreck the treaty." For the treaty to go into effect all 12 EC members must ratify it. `More politics than law'
At a meeting of senior ministers, constitutional advisers told Major that he did not have to defer to Parliament to ratify the treaty. Lawyers, however, dispute that point.
Professor Bernard Rudden, a specialist in constitutional law at Oxford University, says the Commons had to endorse the treaty, but Professor Michael Zander, a constitutional lawyer at the London School of Economics, argued that the government had no need of parliamentary approval.
Sir Teddy Taylor, a Conservative rebel who is determined to kill the Maastricht bill, says the matter is "more about politics than law."
"The government would be unwise to ignore the will of Parliament," he says, noting that 2 out of 3 British citizens, according to opinion polls, are opposed to the Maastricht Treaty.
Major has rejected calls for a referendum.
The EC's Mr. Bangemann said: "There is no alternative to a federal state. European unification must therefore be seen through to a successful conclusion."
Members of the European Parliament meeting in Strasbourg last week said the British dispute was difficult to understand.
Jean Penders, Dutch Christian Democrat member of the parliament, accuses British anti-Maastricht politicians of adopting a "totally negative and destructive pose."
"There is something wrong with Britain's parliamentary behavior," he says.