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European unity takes center stage in British election

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Tories: Only Major can protect country's sovereignty

April 17, 1997
Web posted at: 8:30 p.m. EDT (0030 GMT)

LONDON (CNN) -- How far and how fast Britain should integrate itself into the rest of Europe is an issue that British political leaders didn't particularly want to talk about in their election campaign.

But, like it or not, they are now talking about it. A revolt within his own Conservative Party on the issue of whether Britain should join the European Union's planned single currency left Prime Minister John Major with no choice.

And Conservative, or Tory, leaders are making sure that the opposition Labour Party's position on Europe is being equally well scrutinized.

On Thursday, the Conservatives took out full-page ads in several newspapers, hoping to convince voters that British sovereignty will be safe only in Major's hands.

The appeal came a day after Major made an impassioned plea urging that his wait-and-see policy on joining a single European currency was best for Britain.

"Whether you agree with me or disagree with me, like me or loathe me, don't bind my hands when I am negotiating on behalf of the British nation," Major said.

'Euroskeptics' rebel on common European currency

Major

Conservative backbenchers, joined by some of Major's own junior cabinet ministers, are in open rebellion over the currency issue. These so-called "Euroskeptics" are dead set against Britain giving up its own currency in favor of a pan-European replacement.

Major, on the other hand, says he would not rule out currency union with Europe, but he says it would first have to be approved by voters in a referendum after further negotiations.

A recent poll showed only 22 percent of British voters think currency union is a good idea. At least 170 Conservative candidates for Parliament have abandoned their prime minister on this issue, to the delight of the Labour Party.

"The difficulty for the Conservatives is that John Major may negotiate if he is re-elected, but his party will decide," said Labour leader Tony Blair. "I mean, that's the problem, isn't it? We know that he is not in charge of his own party."

Major says he won't enforce party line

But on Thursday, Major made a concession to the Euroskeptics in his party. He indicated that he would probably not force his fellow Tory lawmakers to tow the party line on future votes on currency integration. Instead, he said he would probably allow a "free vote" on the issue.

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Trailing in the polls, Major's recent moves toward the Euroskeptic position are seen as an attempt to capitalize on the country's growing unease over integration with Europe -- be it the contentious issue of fishing rights or the loss of the queen's face on their beloved pound.

Despite their own differences on Europe, Conservatives are attacking Blair and Labour for not having a consistent policy at all on the issue.

"They have a posture on Europe, and that posture changes depending [on] whether the audience is a continental one or one back home here in this country," says Foreign Minister Malcolm Rifkind.

Six weeks after Britain's May 1 election, the next prime minister will have to go to Amsterdam to negotiate a crucial treaty on greater European integration. The Conservative argument is that only Major is experienced enough to represent British interests in such a pivotal negotiation.

The question is whether voters will buy that argument or see the battle over Europe as one more example of a prime minister who can't even keep his own party in line.

Correspondent Siobhan Darrow and Reuters contributed to this report.

 
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