PRIME Minister John Major will inherit the task of trying to pick up the pieces of the Maastricht Treaty on European political and economic union which senior British government officials admit was gravely compromised by the "no" vote in the Danish referendum June 2.
As incumbent president of the European Council of Ministers for six months starting July 1, Mr. Major will search for ways of maintaining the momentum of European unity now that the treaty is said by supporters and critics alike to be a virtual dead letter.
Yesterday Major was forced by the Labour parliamentary opposition and some of his own supporters to postpone the committee stages of a British bill to ratify the treaty. There are doubts whether the government could sustain its parliamentary majority in a vote on treaty ratification.
Within hours of the Danish referendum's close, former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher seized the opportunity to put pressure on the government to think again about moves to a federal Europe. In a jubilant statement she said: "The Danish people have spoken for many others in the European Community who have not had the chance to make their views known."
Hugh Dykes, chairman of the European Movement and a fervent pro-EC member of the Commons, said: "The stark reality is that the key elements of Maastricht now have to be ... reconsidered, either to secure modified Danish approval in a new referendum or as a separate protocol leaving Denmark out."
At Westminster yesterday, pressure was mounting on Neil Kinnock, the Labour opposition leader, to order his party to vote against the bill ratifying the Maastricht Treaty. Labour, allied with known Conservative anti-EC rebels, could hope to defeat the government, which has a 21-seat Commons majority.
S Major ordered an urgent meeting of senior ministers and asked British diplomats at the EC headquarters in Brussels to send him a damage-report, Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrat Party, and an ardent European federalist, called for a British referendum on the Maastricht Treaty.
Whitehall sources say a possible way forward is for Britain in coming months to lead a movement within the EC to ratify the treaty, despite Denmark's rejection. But ministers privately conceded that such a solution would lack the force of a fully endorsed treaty. "This is the worst crisis the EC has faced since its formation. The entire principle of a unifying Europe is under challenge," one minister says.
Politically, the Major government finds itself in a curious position in the wake of the Danish vote. It favored the Maastricht Treaty and endorsed its general unifying thrust. But the prime minister opposes clauses on a single European currency and rejects the provision for a social chapter setting standards for employment conditions in the EC.
Nicholas Budgen, a Conservative party Euroskeptic in the House of Commons, said: "In some ways the Danes' attitude reflects that of many people in Britain. I believe that if a referendum on Maastricht were held in Britain, the public would probably follow the Danish example and reject it."
British officials expressed concern about the effect of the Danish result on the people of the Irish republic who are to vote in a referendum on the Maastricht Treaty on June 18.
Albert Reynolds, the Irish prime minister, said yesterday that his country's referendum would go ahead as planned.
But a British official said: "It is likely that many Irish will see the Danish vote as a precedent. If two countries reject Maastricht the entire process of European union could begin to unravel."
But British Foreign Secretary Douglas Hurd denied claims that the treaty was "dead." "The fact that one country for the time being has decided not to ratify is no reason for other countries not to go ahead to ratify," he said.