Blair and Straw at odds over timing of EU constitution Bill

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Indy Politics

A Cabinet battle has broken out over Europe, with Tony Blair and Jack Straw at odds over whether to rush through the legislation implementing the proposed European Union constitution.

The Foreign Secretary wants to introduce the Bill shortly after the Queen's Speech on 23 November so that it can become law before the general election pencilled in for May. He also wants the Government to give a firm commitment to hold a referendum in the spring of 2006.

But Mr Blair is reluctant to give the European Communities Bill top priority because it would leave little Parliamentary time to get other legislation on to the statute book before the election. He wants to head off Tory attacks on the Government's record on crime by seeing measures such as a national identity cards scheme pushed through before the election.

He was persuaded to make a U-turn over whether to hold a referendum on the EU constitution by a cabinet campaign led by Mr Straw, who is more sceptical on Europe than Mr Blair.

The row has revived the tensions at the top of the Government over the referendum. Mr Blair wants to hold one in 2006 but does not want to be tied to a specific time.

A Whitehall source said yesterday: "Jack Straw ... is arguing that we should get on with the Bill and not be deflected by the possibility of an election. But other ministers are saying we should not allow Europe to dominate Parliament before the election."

The Bill would take several weeks to push through the Commons and Lords. As a constitutional measure, it would have to be discussed in detail in the Commons rather than by a committee of MPs. Some ministers fear that rushing the Bill through would give the Tories a platform to warn that the new EU blueprint would put Britain on the road to a EU superstate.

Yesterday in the Commons Mr Blair insisted that a referendum in Britain would go ahead even if another EU nation had already voted No - which would prevent the Treaty being ratified. There has been speculation that he would delay the plebiscite if a big EU member such as France had voted no.

During a Commons statement on last week's EU summit in Brussels, Mr Blair clashed with the Tory leader, Michael Howard, who challenged him to match the Tories' pledge to call the referendum next year.

Mr Howard warned that unelected judges in the European Court of Justice would take more decisions on Britain's asylum policy after the Government's decision to support greater EU integration on the issue. He told Mr Blair: "It's no good you talking about opt-outs. You've chosen to opt-in to all the major measures on asylum."

But the Prime Minister insisted there were "great benefits" in co-operating with other EU countries on justice and home affairs. He said Britain's opt-out "gives us the right to decide whether to participate in each item of the EU work programme and makes a nonsense of claims that Britain has given up the right to control its own borders".

Mr Howard said plans to make Europe the most dynamic economy in the world by 2010 were "just a pipedream". He warned that a European constitution would make Europe's economy "even less flexible, even less competitive and even more sluggish" than today.

Mr Blair said the summit had underlined the importance of Britain maintaining both a strong relationship with America and a "strong place in the councils of the EU".