Dutch appeal to Major to curb anti-EU rhetoric


The EU presidency is anxious about the tone of the British election campaign, writes Patrick Smyth, European Correspondent, from The Hague


THE British Prime Minister, Mr John Major, last night heard an appeal from the Presidency of the European Union to curb anti-EU rhetoric in the forthcoming British general election campaign.

Speaking to journalists, the Dutch Foreign Minister, Mr Hans van Mierlo, warned that the tone of the British election debate could be "more important" to the Union's debate on constitutional reform than the result.

Mr Major was in The Hague for a private meeting with the Prime Minister, Mr Wim Kok, to mark the effective launch of the Dutch presidency. Earlier the European Commission met the Dutch cabinet. Over the next few days, Mr van Mierlo will hold a round of bilateral meetings with fellow foreign ministers to sound out their views.

He met the Tanaiste, Mr Spring, on Monday night and said yesterday that the Irish had been able to pass on a great deal of important detail on the negotiating positions of other member-states. Mr Spring, he said, had also given him an Irish assessment of the British situation and a Dublin perspective on how to deal with London.

The President of the Commission, Mr Jacques Santer, speaking after his meeting with the Dutch said the Union would "not allow itself to be paralysed by the perspective of an election in any member-state".

The hope that progress can be made on constitutional change in the Union before the British elections was the theme of the discussions with the Dutch cabinet. It was also taken up by Mr Kok, who insisted enigmatically that "until the moment when I come to the conclusion we cannot make progress, I remain optimistic".

The challenge for the Dutch presidency is to meet the June deadline for the treaty-changing Intergovernmental Conference (IGC). The timetable is as important in some ways as the content, since failure to meet the deadline would push back talks on enlargement and result in the IGC debate overlapping with what are bound to be painful discussions on the next five-year budget round, as well as difficult elections in France and Germany in 1998.

Mr Kok last night was exploring with Mr Major what work can be done immediately but, while stressing to his British counterpart his determination not to get embroiled in British controversy, he will certainly have left Mr Major in no doubt that it would suit his purposes for the latter to go 10 the country early.

In the meantime, the Dutch are playing a careful game, anxious not to give political hostages to the Tories by appearing to reach an agreement among the other 14 member-states that only needs Mr Tony Blair's imprimatur.

They stress that the work will continue on the basis of the treaty working document produced by the Irish and the controversial institutional issues not yet touched on. The challenge is to maintain their level of ambition, Mr Kok insisted. "It will be unforgivable if after four or five years, we have to admit that national interests prevailed over the good of Europe," he warned.

On the international front Mr van Mierlo, stressed the need to improve the dialogue with the US, to prepare the second summit on relations with the Mediterranean, and to continue the work of reconstruction and reconciliation in former Yugoslavia.

On monetary union, the Dutch find themselves in the enviable position of inheriting only the largely technical function of translating into legal regulations the agreements made in Dublin on the stability pact, the new exchange rate mechanism and the legal status of the euro. The key decision on who will participate in the euro from the start will not be taken until early 1998.

Neither Mr Kok nor his Minister for Finance, Mr Gerrit Zalm, will be drawn on their personal list of front-runners. Mr Kok described as "unhelpful" comments by a leading German parliamentarian on Monday to the effect that Spain, Belgium and Italy are likely to be excluded.

The Dutch will be with Germany in advocating the most stringent line in interpreting eligibility. Mr Zalm, a member of the right-wing Liberals in a coalition led by the Dutch Labour Party, is insistent that not only must the Maastricht deficit criteria be met, but countries will have to demonstrate that they have done so on a "sustainable basis", not simply through unrepeatable one-off measures.

Asked about the management of the participating currencies between the date of decision and the locking of exchange rates on January 1st 1999, Mr Zalm grinned affably: "I am allowed to say nothing or I can lie to you on that issue. Which do you prefer?"

Sources suggest, however, that several finance ministers are coming to the view that to protect the participating currencies from speculation in the interim, they should announce with the names of participants in early 1998 the rates at which currencies will be locked a year later.

The issue is likely to be discussed informally by ministers over the next six months.

Mr Zalm was more forthcoming on his hopes to initiate a serious discussion on budgetary procedures in the Union. Now net contributors, the Dutch are hoping to curb the right of non-finance ministers to spend money without reference to their finance colleagues. He is also hoping to strengthen national control over how EU regional funds are spent at home.

Mr Zalm paid warm tribute to the commitment and work of his predecessor in the chair of finance ministers, Mr Ruairi Quinn. "You wouldn't even know he's a social democrat," he said, laughing.