Major tangle over treaty

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 08 May, 1993, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 08 May, 1993, 12:00am

DOUBTLESS Maastricht will be on the conversational menu at Government House next week when Margaret Thatcher comes to grace the table of Chris Patten.

Quite a few people got incensed about Maastricht, the Treaty on European Union, this week when for most of us the whole tedious passage of the Bill to ratify it through parliament has become a turgid bore.

The reason why many are getting hot under the collar is in essence simple, it is one of democracy.

When John Major signed up to Britain's own special version of the Treaty in 1991 (it contained opt-out clauses so we didn't have to implement what is known as the Social Chapter on working conditions and such like) his government made it quite clear thatwe couldn't have a referendum to decide whether or not we wanted to join this ''ever greater union'' of the 12 European Community members.

Now what has happened on this turgid and boring passage of the bill ratifying the Treaty through the House of Commons is that the opposition parties, Labour and the Liberal Democrats along with a critical number of Tory rebels, have tried to either wreck the bill or embarrass the Government by attempting to get the Social Chapter included within it.

They all wanted a vote on the Government's decision to omit the Social Chapter from the version of the treaty being pushed through the Commons.

The Government feared a vote - knowing that the opposition parties plus the rebels would inflict a defeat.

The argument is complex. The Deputy Speaker ruled out an amendment which would have made a vote certain. MPs protested, suggesting he had been nobbled by the Government and insisted that the Speaker herself gave a ruling.

This she did after carefully going through all the arguments. She ruled in favour of the MPs and against the Government, which therefore once again faced the prospect of a serious, perhaps even fatal vote against it.

So how did the Government avoid a clash? Well this week the Foreign Secretary, Douglas Hurd, in an amazing piece of cognitive dexterity decided to accept the amendment, therefore avoiding a harmful debate or that critical vote.

The problem now is that the version of the Bill in the Commons now deletes Britain's formal and special opt-out on the Social Chapter.

In theory therefore the Commons is stuck with a Bill which will not ratify the Treaty as it was agreed at Maastricht.

The catch is now that to decide where we stand at all, the whole issue must go before the courts in a move which is expected to take months, possibly meaning we cannot even formally ratify the Treaty by this autumn.

It is here that Chris Patten's guest Margaret Thatcher comes in.

She announced the result of a telephone poll in the Commons on Thursday showing 94 per cent of the people of Britain want a referendum on the issue.

She lambasted most of the features of the Treaty adding: ''I think had the Government agreed to have a referendum long before this they would have avoided many of the troubles which they have run into.'' There is a growing campaign for a referendum now, and it is by no means certain that the Treaty would be rejected by the British people if the Government had the guts to give us a vote.

I don't think for a minute that they will give us a referendum.

But if you hear more than the normal hot air emanating from the windows of Government House this week as pro-Maastricht Chris and anti-EC Maggie get to grips, perhaps you will understand a little of what they are pontificating about.