Once again, treaty on European unity provokes a crisis in British politics

July 21, 1993|By Richard O'Mara | Richard O'Mara,London Bureau

LONDON -- Once again the Maastricht Treaty on European Monetary and Political Union is at the center of a crisis of British politics.

Once again John Major's career as prime minister is exposed to danger as the House of Commons prepares for a vote tomorrow on the controversial Social Chapter of the treaty.

The Maastricht treaty would move the European Community countries toward monetary union and a single currency, possibly by the end of the century. It creates mechanisms for the formulation of common EC defense and diplomatic polices. And in many other ways it would draw the 12 member-nations (soon to be 16) closer together.

Opposition to the treaty's centralizing tendency has been manifest in many of the EC countries.

The treaty requires unanimous approval, and every country in the EC has ratified except Britain.

The British opponents of it have been stronger and more vociferous than those of any other EC country. The surrender of national sovereignty that the union treaty demands has been simply too much for many Britons to accept.

The treaty, signed by Mr. Major in the Dutch river town of Maastricht in December 1991, is the keystone of his Europe policy. If it falls, so does he. Nobody doubts that.

Tomorrow's vote is not actually a vote on ratification. It is on a nonbinding measure by the Labor Party for the government to accept the Social Chapter of the treaty.

This is the part that sets out the rights and benefits to workers in member countries. It limits the hours they can be forced to work, governs minimum wages and conditions on the factory floor, assures benefits for women and child workers, provides for vacations and other guarantees.

During the negotiations in Maastricht Mr. Major managed to get Britain excluded from the requirements of the Social Chapter, which all the other countries approved.

Mr. Major regards the exclusion as a diplomatic triumph. He said it would give British employers an advantage over those on the Continent, and would attract business to Britain owing to its more "flexible" labor market.

The Labor Party, which generally supports the Maastricht Treaty -- but, owing to its trade union base wants Britain in the Social Chapter -- does not have the votes to assure passage of its measure.

However, a number of members of Mr. Major's own Conservative party are threatening to vote for the initiative, not because they believe in it but because they hope to bring about Mr. Major's defeat and embarrassment. This, they expect, would in turn bring about his fall from the leadership of their party. With him, they reason, would go the Maastricht treaty.

There is also another threat to the treaty, a legal challenge brought before the High Court by Conservative Euro-skeptics. It argues that Britain cannot ratify the treaty because the government cannot simply surrender its sovereign power to formulate foreign and defense policies without specific parliamentary approval.

Despite the feverish political atmosphere generated by tomorrow's vote, and the court challenge, it is generally believed the treaty will be ratified. The government's decision to sign the treaty has already been endorsed in votes in both houses of Parliament.

And the prime minister has the authority to ratify the treaty without any further approval from the House of Commons under a mechanism called the Royal Prerogative. If he loses tomorrow's vote, he has made clear, he will exercise it.

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