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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

EU Shrugs Off Major's Threats to Treaty Talks

BRUSSELS -- Britain's threats to block agreement on a new European Union treaty unless it is exempted from the EU's working-hours law are likely to make little immediate difference to talks on the bloc's future.


Over the long haul, EU officials say, British intransigence could prove problematic, but only if Prime Minister John Major's Conservative government is reelected next year. Major must call a general election no later than next May.


"Britain's threats will only have some effect ... if the current administration is elected," said one EU diplomat.


The European Court of Justice on Tuesday threw out Britain's challenge to an EU law setting a maximum enforced work week of 48 hours and mandating rest periods.


Britain argued that it should have been allowed to veto the law but was denied the chance, because it was passed off as a health-and-safety measure which is subject to majority voting.


Major said London would insist on being let out of a law which goes to the heart of employment policy differences between Britain and its EU partners.


This would be done by refusing to agree an end to the intergovernmental conference, or IGC, on a new EU treaty unless provision was made in it to meet British demands.


Although the tactic smacks of yet another EU-Britain spat, it differs sharply from the policy of non-cooperation that Major launched earlier this year to try to force a step-by-step plan for lifting the EU ban imposed on British beef because of mad cow disease. In that case, Britain blocked almost every decision it could until it got an agreement at an EU summit in Florence in June.


Diplomats noted that in the latest case, Britain was only threatening to hold up final agreement of the treaty, which is not due until June next year. No agreements are expected until then in any case.


By June next year Britain will also have had an election. If, as many expect -- and, in the case of the EU, many hope -- the Conservative government is defeated, the winning Labour Party is likely to embrace rather than scorn the EU work week law.


Until the final lap to the treaty, negotiators also have no intention of rejecting ideas put forward by any EU state.


For example, a draft treaty to be presented to EU leaders at a summit in Dublin in December is likely to contain numerous proposals, many of which will be dropped by June. "No options will be closed off," one diplomat said.


If the Conservative government is returned, however, the situation during the IGC's end game could be different.


Although Britain has succeeded on a number of occasions in securing opt-outs or special treatment, changing the treaty to let one EU member off an already legally agreed upon law might be seen as setting a serious precedent.


"That would seem to me to be very damaging to the legal order of the European Union," Social Affairs Commissioner Padraig Flynn said.


There has, however, been at least one example of a retroactive treaty change. In the Maastricht treaty, EU leaders limiting how far a court judgement on pension rights could be applied retroactively.


The issue then was potential huge payments to compensate men for having a later retirement age.