February 17, 2006 2:00 am

SINGLE EUROPEAN ACT

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She regrets it now, of course, but it was Margaret Thatcher, the former British Conservative prime minister, who played a decisive role in the creation of the Single European Act, signed in Luxembourg 20 years ago today.

It was Mrs Thatcher who pushed to create a genuinely open European market and it was the British prime minister who sent her liberal colleague - Lord Cockfield - to Brussels to put her plan into action. She has spent most of the intervening 20 years torturing herself for agreeing to a treaty whose impact went far beyond completing Europe's single market. The Conservative party has spent most of that period tearing itself apart over Europe.

Jacques Delors, French former president of the European Commission, describes the Single European Act in his memoirs as his "favourite treaty", and with good reason. It transferred power to his EU executive and cleared the way for the ultimate creation of the euro as the single market's crowning glory.

Mrs Thatcher tells a story of betrayal and trickery in Brussels. She wanted to open Europe for British business and hoped it could be achieved through a "gentleman's agreement" among member states to demolish national barriers.

Realising that was impractical, she agreed that the 300 or so measures drawn up by Lord Cockfield, EU internal market commissioner, to open the market should be agreed by qualified majority voting, not subject to veto. "We could never have got our insurance into Germany unless we had majority voting," she said in 1993. She claims Mr Delors used the Act to augment his own power, piled on "excessive regulations" and used its provisions on health and safety to regulate working hours in member states. "Yes, we got our fingers burned under the Single European Act."

Lord Howe, her foreign secretary, told the FT yesterday he had no regrets. Lord Hannay, former British ambassador in Brussels, said the UK negotiating team had no doubts about the significance of what they were doing. "This was one of the really big steps the EU took to achieve its objectives," he said.

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