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Major Delays UK's Maastricht Vote

By Eugene Robinson
The Washington Post

LONDON

Prime Minister John Major said Thursday that he still wants to bring Britain into full partnership with its European neighbors, but will not ask Parliament to approve the Maastricht Treaty on economic and political union until firm limits are set on the power of the European Community bureaucracy in Brussels.

At the same time, Major ruled out an early return to the Exchange Rate Mechanism (ERM), a system of fixed currency values from which Britain withdrew last week, and he indicated that Britain might never seek to rejoin unless the system is substantially modified. The ERM is seen as a key step in the European Community's planned drive toward a single currency by the end of the decade.

Major made clear that as far as Britain is concerned, the drive toward European unity will take a back seat to pressing domestic concerns.

"Just as the interests of France and Germany will come first for them, so should the interests of Britain come first for us," Major said during a raucous parliamentary debate, adding that he does not "share the belief in the desirability or the inevitability of a centralized Europe."

Major said there must be a "settled order" spelling out which decisions are to be made by the EC's 12 member nations and which at EC headquarters before he asks Parliament to ratify the Maastricht Treaty, which was left in limbo after last Sunday's referendum in France.

French voters approved the pact, but by a margin of only two percentage points. Voters in Denmark rejected the treaty earlier this year, although Danish officials have held out hope of eventually reversing that decision.

Major was forced to call Parliament into emergency session following last week's debacle in the financial markets, which saw the British pound sink to new lows and Major abandon the keystone of his economic strategy -- Britain's membership in the Exchange Rate Mechanism. In a frantic, but unsuccessful, attempt to defend the pound, the government raised interest rates twice last week and spent up to $20 billion of the Bank of England's reserves before surrendering to currency markets and letting the pound be devalued.

The result has been the worst political crisis of Major's 22 months in office. Although Major easily survived a confidence vote Thursday night on his economic policy, even members of his own Conservative Party, which holds a parliamentary majority, have been privately critical of his performance.

In Thursday's debate, Major sought to defend his economic policy against withering attacks. Opposition Labor Party leader John Smith described last week's events as "tragicomic," called Major's remarks "vainglorious nonsense" and said the government seemed to have no idea what its economic policy was.

Smith mocked Major's contention that everything was on track until huge speculative money flows upset the currency markets and sent the pound spiraling downward. "That's the defense -- overcome by events," Smith said. "Along came a wave and overturned the vessel. No one takes responsibility. No one resigns, at least not yet. And no one takes the blame."

Major defended his record on bringing down inflation, which is running at 3.6 percent annually, and said that holding down the inflation rate remains the most important aim of his economic policy. Membership in the ERM was supposed to provide the discipline required to whip inflation, and Major did not say what would do the job now that Britain no longer belongs.

The EC has been developing regulations that critics say intrude on national identity. "There are fears throughout Europe that the Community is too centralized, too bureaucratic," Major said.

In negotiating the Maastricht pact, Britain insisted on the principle that all decisions should be made at the national level unless there is a compelling reason to take the matter to Brussels. Now, according to government officials, Major wants to have that principle amplified and made more specific.

He is set to raise that issue at a one-day European Community summit, scheduled for Oct. 16 in Birmingham, England.