Britain balking as decision on EC nears Conservatives' split imperils party unity

October 29, 1991|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau of The Sun

LONDON -- Twenty years ago yesterday, the British Parliament endorsed a Conservative government's decision to join the European Common Market. The Labor Party opposed it.

How things change.

Today, opposition to the European Community is centered in the Conservative Party and is growing, threatening the party's cohesion.

Labor is all pro-Europe. Neil Kinnock, the party leader, denounced the Conservatives yesterday for conducting their policy toward the EC "not on the basis of what is best for Britain but on the basis of what will keep the cracks in the Tory Party as obscure as possible."

Britain rarely has been so much the odd man out in Europe as it is today. The list of divergences between Britain and most or all of its partners in the EC seems to grow longer each week.

Britain always has been the most reluctant nation in the fold, even though polls indicate that Britons see their future as part of the EC.

On Dec. 10 in Maastricht, Netherlands, Prime Minister John Major must sign or veto treaties that would commit Britain to deeper political and economic integration into the EC.

As the time of decision draws near, Britain seems to find itself more and more in conflict with its partners in just about every sphere.

* London says it doesn't want to surrender control of immigration to an EC bureaucracy. Yet European borders are to be opened next year, which will require Britain to allow the entry and exit of citizens from all community countries.

* Britain doesn't like an EC proposal to set a 48-hour workweek for all of Europe and reduce Sunday work. Michael Howard, Britain's employment secretary, says that would add $9 million to industrial costs.

* Britain opposes a plan favored by Germany to give the European Parliament the authority to initiate legislation. The thinking is that power given to that parliament is lost to the British Parliament.

* Britain continues to lead the resistance to a proposal by France and Germany to create a specifically European military force. London's argument is that it would be doing the same work NATO is doing now.

* Last week, Mr. Major responded angrily when EC Environment Commissioner Carlo Ripa di Meana criticized several major construction projects in Britain because they were not preceded by environmental impact statements. Mr. Major said such criticism might make it more difficult for Britain to sign the treaties at Maastricht.

But the fiercest resistance has been directed toward the treaties themselves. They would lead to monetary union and would require further political cohesion, partly by permitting the community to make decisions by majority vote. The current rule allows any head of government to veto a community initiative.

"I would not accept . . . any treaty which sought to impose a single currency, at however distant a date," Mr. Major told the Conservative convention earlier this month.

Also, the thought that the 11 other members of the community could force a change in London's policy in Northern Ireland is more than unsettling to London.

The precise amount of national sovereignty that would have to be given up is not measurable yet, since the treaties are not finished.

But a diminution of the British Parliament's power, a loss of control over the currency that would follow the establishment of a European central bank, the need to consult with Greeks, Germans and Frenchmen in areas that were once the prerogative of the government in Westminster -- all this was something Margaret Thatcher could not even contemplate when she was prime minister less than a year ago.

She and Norman Tebbit, former Conservative chairman, led the opposition to the Maastricht treaties. Mr. Major came into office promising to take Britain to the center of Europe and says that is still his aim, even if he does sound less and less enthusiastic about it these days.

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