DISUNITY in the ranks of the ruling Conservative Party is driving Britain into a new conflict with its partners in the European Union.
Douglas Hurd, the foreign secretary, has warned other EU governments that Britain will defend its existing right to veto legislation considered by the EU council of ministers. He has also urged them to slow the pace of progress toward unity and instead concentrate on making the current arrangements of the 12-nation group work better.
The real motive behind Mr. Hurd's and Prime Minister John Major's ``walk before you run'' approach to EU affairs seems to be the need to heal a split within the Conservative Party over European policy. Unless the split can be remedied, they calculate, the government is in danger of heavy losses in the upcoming June elections for the European Parliament.
Hurd used a March 7 speech to the Belgian Institute of International Affairs to stress that the British government is lukewarm about ``federalist rhetoric,'' and to warn that it will oppose moves to water down the voting rights of the larger nations, including Britain, when new members join the EU in the next year or two.
A Conservative official involved in drafting the party's manifesto for the June 9 European Parliament polls said: ``We have to agree [to] a campaign policy that promises to keep Britain at the center of the EU but distances us from the worst excesses of European federalism.''
This compromise is being forced on the Major government by an influential group of Conservative members of Parliament and loyalists of former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher who last year opposed the Maastricht Treaty on European unity. This group could cause the Major government trouble in votes in the House of Commons.
William Cash, a leader of the ``Euroskeptics,'' last week urged Major to approve a party manifesto repudiating a federal Europe and a single EU currency. The manifesto is being drafted by a 14-member committee chaired by Hurd.
What it should say
Major apparantly wants a brief manifesto that avoids explicit criticism of federalism. Mr. Cash favors a detailed rejection of EU-style bureaucracy and further moves toward political and financial unification.
The government's room for maneuver has been reduced by plans to enlarge the EU with the accession of Austria, Finland, Sweden, and possibly Norway.
Under the EU's voting system, some issues, including key financial decisions, must be decided unanimously. But in health and social affairs, laws can be passed by a ``qualified majority.''
Using these arrangements, for example, Germany, Britain, and the Netherlands have been able to prevent the EU from imposing a ban on tobacco advertising. The British government worries that the accession of several new states whose governments oppose tobacco advertising may make it impossible to block legislation it does not like.
Britain also wants to retain a veto on council moves to force it to adhere to EU regulations on working hours and safety standards. Hurd worries that when the membership of the EU expands, small member-states will be able to outvote large states under the qualified majority system.
Progress on admitting Austria and the Nordic countries to the EU will be impeded until the dispute on voting rights is resolved.
By appearing to resist enlargement, Britain is putting itself in a contradictory position. Until now it has favored admitting new members to the EU, arguing that the EU administration in Brussels would be distracted from expanding its powers.
Sir Norman Fowler, the chairman of the Conservative Party, has warned Major that a pro-EU manifesto for the European Parliament elections would probably dismay many Conservative voters. The Conservatives are currently running well behind the opposition Labour Party in opinion polls.
Major also has to contend with his own personal unpopularity and the likelihood that at local government elections in May, the Conservatives will face substantial defeats. The local elections take place a week or two after heavy tax increases take effect.