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Britain Ends Resistance; EU OKs Expansion Compromise

March 30, 1994|TYLER MARSHALL | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BRUSSELS — Ending weeks of bitter wrangling, the 12 European Union countries forged a compromise Tuesday to end a dispute that has blocked plans for the group to expand to 16 nations.

The breakthrough came not in Brussels but on the floor of the House of Commons in London, where British Prime Minister John Major announced that Britain will end its refusal to accept changes in voting procedures considered an essential part of the enlargement.

The European Parliament, which must ratify the terms of enlargement, had already made it clear that it will not give its approval unless the procedures are altered.

The planned changes, which would take effect once the four new members joined, would make it more difficult for a few nations to block the will of the majority within the EU.

While Major's comments were hardly enthusiastic, his shift of position removes a major obstacle to the planned Jan. 1, 1995, accession of Sweden, Finland, Norway and Austria.

The compromise proposals "meet many, though not all, of the government's concerns," Major told Parliament in a statement explaining his decision.

Spain, which had also opposed the changes, agreed last weekend to go along with them, leaving Britain isolated from the other 11.

Under the EU's vote distribution system, the 12 countries have a total of 76 votes, with large nations such as Germany and Britain wielding 10 each, smaller nations having fewer and the smallest, Luxembourg, only two.

Ambassadors from the EU's 12 members are scheduled to meet here today to formally endorse the changes, which will raise the minimum number of votes needed to block new legislation to 27 from the present 23.

Under terms of the compromise, the countries agreed to seek common ground prior to a final vote, once a minority of 23 votes is reached, and to review the entire voting procedures again in 1996.

Britain also won written assurances that it would not be isolated under the new rules on any law related to social issues--matters generally dealing with the EU's mandatory employee fringe benefits, with which Britain has consistently refused to go along.

Despite Tuesday's breakthrough, the proposed enlargement still faces hurdles, including parliamentary votes and referendums in all four candidate countries on terms of entry into the Union.

The addition of Austria and the three Scandinavian countries would give an important push to the drive for greater European integration.

It has been slowed by a series of factors, including the huge shifts that have swept the Continent since the Iron Curtain fell more than four years ago; Europe's worst economic recession since the 1930s, and the rise of nationalistic sentiments in several countries.

The presence of four rich new members would also put the EU in a far stronger position to reach out--later in the decade--to struggling democracies in the formerly Communist east. That is a step many see as crucial for the Continent's long-term stability.

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