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Maastricht bill passes Commons

By
PETER SHADBOLT

LONDON -- Two days after approval in a Danish referendum, the Maastricht Treaty on closer European union cleared another hurdle toward final ratification Thursday with its passage by the British House of Commons.

Members of Parliament voted 292 to 112 to pass the Maastricht bill on third and final reading in the Commons after another in a series of late-night debates on Britain's place in Europe.

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Thebill must still be reviewed by the House of Lords and obtain the queen's formal royal assent before official British ratification.

Denmark's approval of the treaty in a second referendum Tuesday left Britain and Germany as the only two of the 12 European Community members remaining to ratify the pact.

The opposition Labor Party, which has fought the government over its removal of the controversial social chapter from the treaty, assured the bill's passage by advising its members to abstain from the final vote in the Commons.

Continued opposition from Conservative backbench 'Euro-rebels,' who have opposed their government on closer ties with Europe, slowed the treaty's trip through Parliament but failed to ultimately stop its passage.

Although the Labor Party supports closer European union in general, at previous stages of the Maastricht bill's long trip through Parliament opposition MPs had joined the Conservative rebels in an unlikely alliance to fight the current form of the treaty.

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But Labor decided Thursday to abstain rather than vote against the treaty. Labor Party spokesman David Hill said the mass abstention was Labor's protest at the government's opt-out clause on the social chapter, which sets out conditions and minimum wages for workers within the European Community.

'While we support the Maastricht treaty in principle, the bill in its present form is unacceptable because it does not contain the social chapter,' Hill said. The Conservative government has made it a precondition of passing the Maastricht bill that the social chapter be left out of the British version of the 12-member treaty.

But Labor accuses the government of trying to attract investment to Britain by offering cheap labor and last week Labor leader John Smith hit out at the government for 'living in the economics of the sweatshop.'

'Besides the French fascist Jean-Marie Le Pen, John Major is the only leader among the 12-member states to oppose the social chapter,' Hill said. 'I have no qualms about including the prime minister among such company.'

Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd defended the government's opt-out clause for the social chapter Thursday, saying the chapter's exclusion would allow Britain to be more competitive within Europe.

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He said the British economy was protected from high costs 'like those experienced in Germany,' he said.

After making it past the House of Commons with the third reading, the Maastricht bill still must pass for review to the House of Lords, where it faces opposition from former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher among others.

The bill then goes to the queen for a formal royal assent before ratification in the summer. Before that, however, lawmakers will debate the social chapter separately due to a successful Labor amendment earlier this year.

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