Split could wreck treaty, and Major


February 12, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- The so-called Social Chapter of the Maastricht Treaty of European political and monetary union -- which Prime Minister John Major so adroitly avoided 16 months ago when the treaty was signed -- has now become the instrument that could destroy the treaty, and possibly bring down his government as well.

In a stroke that seemed likely to win over reluctant Britons, Mr. Major had argued successfully at the Dutch town of Maastricht that his people should not have to accept the provisions that would allow bureaucrats in Brussels, Belgium, to decide how many hours Britons could legally work, the lengths of their vacations, factory safety standards, what benefits British women would have in the workplace and other services guaranteed in many Continental countries.

But the rebellion within the Conservative Party against the Maastricht Treaty has endured and grown. This week an alliance began forming between right-wing Conservatives who oppose Britain's deeper involvement in Europe and the Labor Party.

Earlier in the week John Smith, the Labor Party leader, invited the rebel Conservatives to join him in attaching to the Maastricht bill currently moving through Parliament an amendment endorsing the Social Chapter.

The Conservatives accepting this deal -- and there is no telling how many there are -- want only to kill the treaty, which an amendment would accomplish. Any change in the treaty would have to be ratified by all member states in the European Community, and no one thinks that could be done.

Mr. Smith's intentions are not entirely clear, because until now Labor has supported the treaty as a whole. Some speculate that he may hope the embarrassment of a defeat for Mr. Major might prove politically lethal and that a future Labor government might be able to revive the Maastricht idea.

Even without this threat to the treaty from an issue of domestic British politics, the Social Chapter, or its absence from the treaty, has engendered new antagonisms across community borders.

The so-called "Hoover affair" has caused people on the Continent, especially in France, to wonder if perhaps they didn't make a mistake that cold night back in Maastricht when they agreed to the British "opt-out" from the Social Chapter.

Back then the EC's 12 member states agreed to drop the section because Mr. Major refused to sign a treaty that contained such provisions. They didn't want to see the years of work that went into the drafting of the treaty wasted.

Afterward, the 11 signed a protocol outside the treaty accepting the Social Chapter themselves.

Mr. Major returned to London and said he had struck a good deal for British industry, if not British workers. It would enhance the climate here for investment capital from outside the community, he said.

But not everybody agreed. Labor supported the Social Chapter. So did a lot of other people in the country. Trade unions wanted the legal protections it offered.

Conservative resistance was understandable. An enduring element of Conservative strategy since the party regained power in 1979 under Margaret Thatcher has been to diminish the influence of organized labor in the country. Nobody doubts that it has succeeded.

Just how thoroughly was made evident by the Hoover vacuum cleaner company's move of one of its plants from Dijon, in France, to Glasgow, in Scotland. With it went 400 jobs. In normal prosperous times losing that many jobs would have caused no stir. But times are not normal in France, nor prosperous.

Unemployment is around 10 percent. This is about the same level as in Britain, but unemployment is a more disruptive social factor in France than here.

So, suddenly 400 jobs mattered.

What also matters to the French, and to others at the EC's headquarters in Brussels, are the conditions of the transfer. In Dijon, Hoover demanded concessions from its French workers. One was a pay freeze, to which the unions agreed. Others they rejected as not in keeping with the Social Chapter.

In Glasgow nearly all were accepted, including a surrender of the right to strike and the installation of video cameras on the factory floor.

Jacques Delors, the EC Commission president, accused the British of "job poaching" and, more descriptively, of "social dumping."

French Prime Minister Pierre Beregevoy said: "Britain is going down a dead-end path. . . . The Scottish workers, a pistol loaded with job cuts at their heads, have agreed to give up employment rights, the right to strike and accepted a blow to their pension funds and wage cuts."

Whatever path Britain is on these days, it doesn't seem to lead to the heart of Europe, where Mr. Major promised to go. Rather it appears to lead away from what the EC is said to stand for, a community where standards apply equally, a so-called "level playing field."

The Maastricht Treaty has already been approved by 10 of the 12 community states. Even Denmark, which last June became the only country to veto it, is reportedly ready to approve it when another vote is taken May 18.

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