Britain's Major Walks Tightrope on Europe

PRIME Minister John Major has again set Britain on a collision course with its partners in the European Union.

He has refused in a policy statement to surrender London's right of veto over EU decisionmaking. But even this move - his most forthright rejection of an idea he has long opposed - seems unlikely to satisfy the harshest critics of his government who want a still more obdurate stand against European integration.

Furthermore, as the long-awaited document, ''A Partnership of Nations,'' was released March 12, two new threats to Prime Minister Major's already hard-pressed administration have surfaced.

Election challenge

One came in the shape of a billionaire publisher skeptical of European integration, Sir James Goldsmith, who has formed a single-issue movement called the Referendum Party (RP).

At the next general elections, Mr. Goldsmith is threatening to enter candidates in all constituencies where the Conservative candidate refuses to support a referendum on a single European currency.

Analysts say the RP could affect the outcome in as many as 25 seats, making the government's defeat in the general elections, to be held by next May, virtually certain.

The government has so far remained silent on the issue of holding a referendum on a single currency, but Major is taking the Goldsmith referendum challenge extremely seriously.

He has ordered Foreign Secretary Malcom Rifkind to prepare a Cabinet paper on the implications of any commitment to such a referendum. On March 12, Mr. Rifkind said work had already begun on it.

In the House of Commons this month, Major said a referendum was ''an option,'' but government officials say that if one were held, it would be after the cabinet had made a decision on a single European currency.

The second menace facing Major's government - which has only a two-seat House of Commons majority - is a by-election in a seat where the Conservatives are highly vulnerable.

The vote has been set for April 11, and with the Labour opposition running 30 points ahead of the Conservatives in opinion polls, the ruling party is bracing itself for a defeat that would wipe out its majority in the Commons altogether.

Sticking with NATO

Major's policy statement on Europe appears to be an attempt to steer between pro-Europeans, who favor a closer relationship with the EU, and Euroskeptics opposed to further integration.

It accepts the need for Europe-wide coordination of foreign policy, but comes down hard against any moves by Brussels to remove individual nations' right of veto on important EU policy issues.

It also rules out moves toward a European defense organization to rival NATO, though it does not say Britain is against a single European currency.

Foreign Secretary Rifkind, speaking before the white paper's publication, said: ''Nations remain the basis of the Europe of which we are a part, and that must never be forgotten.''

Rifkind's view counters that of other EU leaders, notably German Chancellor Helmut Kohl and Jacques Santer, president of the European Commission in Brussels. In a radio interview with the BBC on March 12, Mr. Santer called for an integrated Europe and predicted that EU nations would agree a single currency by the Jan. 1, 1999, target date.

Major, according to reports March 12, has been in touch with Goldsmith through a third party to see whether he could be persuaded to disband the RP.

But Goldsmith, a member of the European Parliament in Strasbourg, France, who has campaigned fiercely against diluting the power of nation-states, is thought unlikely to give up easily. In the more immediate future, Major runs the risk of a parliamentary defeat. Next week, the Commons will debate the new policy statement. If a group of about 15 confirmed Conservative Euroskeptics decide that the policy statement is not sufficiently anti-EU, they have threatened to vote against it.

Bill Cash, a prominent Euroskeptic member of Parliament said: ''We won't be bought off with mere rhetoric.''

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