British Face Constitutional Crisis on EC Law

Article excerpt

BRITAIN'S refusal to make an unqualified commitment to the European Community is fueling dismay among its continental partners and propelling Prime Minister John Major toward a constitutional crisis.

Behind the crisis is the social chapter, a body of law within last year's Maastricht Treaty on EC unity that creates a framework for workers' rights and is supported by the EC's other 11 members. Britain signed the treaty but opted out of the chapter.

Senior figures in EC countries have been shocked by the British dispute.

In a Berlin speech, Martin Bangemann, the EC's industry commissioner, said countries hostile to a united Europe "should consider whether they really want to belong to this Community."

An informal coalition of opposition British Labour and Liberal Democrat members of Parliament, along with about 30 rebel Conservatives, is threatening to force Mr. Major to accept the social chapter as part of a bill ratifying the treaty.

Major, sensing the likelihood of a parliamentary defeat, on Feb. 13 let it be known through officials that he may be prepared to break precedent by asking Queen Elizabeth to ratify the treaty without the social chapter by royal prerogative, regardless of any House of Commons vote.

A day later, the same officials said the government had no intention of bypassing Parliament. And Major ordered Douglas Hurd, the foreign secretary, to make a statement to Parliament clarifying the official intention.

George Robertson, Labour Party spokesman on foreign affairs, says such a move would create an "uproar" in the House of Commons. Labour scrutiny

The Commons is currently engaged in line-by-line scrutiny of the Maastricht bill. The Labour Party is proposing an amendment that would make the social chapter a part of the bill.

Major insists that negotiating an opt-out from the social chapter was an important achievement. In parliamentary debates on Maastricht he has said British industry could not subscribe to the chapter's provisions and remain competitive in European trade.

Labour and the Liberal Democrats are in favor of enshrining workers' rights. The Conservative rebels who are threatening to vote for the social chapter say they dislike its provisions, but hate the body of the Maastricht Treaty much more.

Last week Major and Mr. Hurd appeared to give the rebels an opening when they said that a government defeat over the social chapter would kill the treaty. …