Back, Foul Europe, Back!

In EU voting compromise, Britons see end to their island nation's splendid, isolated sovereignty

EACH time Britain locks horns with its European Union partners, it discovers a bit more about the need to accept binding decisions made in faraway places with unfamiliar names. The latest lesson was learned in Ioannina, a tiny town in northern Greece.

On March 27, EU foreign ministers meeting there in private session gave Britain 48 hours to accept new rules of voting when Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Austria join the organization next year.

Under the new arrangement, 27 votes in the EU's politically supreme Council of Ministers would be needed to block legislation, instead of the current 23 votes. This, Britain has argued, will make it much harder for an individual country to resist measures it does not like.

Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd did not relish having to return to London with news many of his Cabinet colleagues were bound to find unpalatable. In the House of Commons on March 29, Prime Minister John Major said the agreement reached met ``many, but not all, of the government's concerns'' about voting. John Smith, the Labour opposition leader, replied that it was ``a humiliating surrender'' by Britain.

Ioannina thus joined a lengthening line of venues where British sovereignty has been diminished in the interests of a collective EU will. Maastricht, a small city in the Netherlands, is where Prime Minister Major last year had to accept a treaty committing the EU to progressive political and economic integration. And of course there is Brussels, where 17 European Commissioners work on directives that shape the lives of the EU's 345 million citizens.

The process by which Britons are having to accept that they are no longer masters in their own offshore island is producing deep divisions in the ruling Conservative Party.

When the Westminster Parliament approved the Maastricht Treaty, Major heaved a sigh of relief, thinking the squabbling was over. He was wrong.

The run-up to the Ioannina meeting showed that resentment at progressive erosion of British sovereignty was still running hard among so-called Euro-skeptics - members of Parliament who oppose centralization of the EU and demand that Britain's national interests be given top priority.

When Bill Cash, their leader in the House of Commons, learned what Mr. Hurd was going to recommend to the Cabinet, he called it ``a humiliating climbdown'' and swore to stage a rebellion against it. Other Conservatives displayed anxiety at the prospect of having to accept new EU voting rules.

A senior government member of Parliament who described himself as ``pro-Europe'' said the deal Hurd brought back was ``unlikely to be acceptable to most of my constituents.'' Lord Richard, an opposition Labour Party spokesman in the House of Lords, said it was ``one of the most crass pieces of British diplomacy I can remember.''

The London Times, normally sympathetic to Conservative governments, urged Major to reject the Ioannina formula. In an March 29 editorial it declared: ``Defeat in Greece cannot be dressed as victory in Europe.'' Britain's EU partners have pointed out to Major that if he does not like any decision made under the new voting system, he can always challenge it in the European Court of Justice. The government, however, takes little consolation from this.

The European Court tends to uphold decisions made by the EU Council of Ministers. Also, it is yet another case of decisions being made in places remote from Britain. The 13 judges of the Court deliberate in Luxembourg. Their rulings are final on matters of European law. If a country takes a case to the court and loses, there is no appeal.

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