EU Reluctantly Accepts Britain's Compromise

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EUROPE reluctantly accepted the compromise offered to Britain yesterday, with continuing doubts hanging over what it means and how much it is worth.

British officials say the deal includes considerable safeguards and represents a significant victory. But by contrast, officials in Brussels yesterday said the concessions Britain has been given amounted to little more than a diplomatic fig-leaf. "The emperor has no clothes," one official said.

The Ioannina compromise recognises that the number of votes required to block legislation that is subject to qualified majority voting will rise from 23 to 27. It refers to a time delay of a "reasonable period", not the ability to block legislation completely.

It allows some "wiggle room", where a group of states too small to block a measure have problems with legislation. Already, every effort is made to avoid isolating states and the measure will change little. "I think this will not have much practical effect," a Council of Ministers official said.

Each European Union state agreed to the compromise, but some countries indicated their unhappiness, including the Dutch, who accepted with "reluctance". They feel the latitude introduced by this deal is too much, and worry that it may prevent future reforms to speed decision-making.

Britain argues that the new text is legally binding, since a key part of it is in the form of a decision by the Council of Ministers, the EU's main legislative body. But it is a special and rarely-used form of decision and affects neither the EU treaty nor the Council's rules of procedure. The voting delay that Britain has won will last until the EU rewrites its rules in 1996 and then passes a new treaty parallel to Maastricht.

It is limited to those cases where existing law contains no obligatory time limits. Many of the EU mechanisms for decision- making, however, contain so many time limits that it is unclear whether Britain could enforce a delay. Most member states and legal experts from the Commission, Council of Ministers and Parliament believe the delay will in practice be two or three months. In any case, other member states can always call a vote if a majority wants - seven states out of 12. …