Blair backs constitution and says Eurosceptics are 'dumb'

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Tony Blair pledged yesterday that Britain would agree and ratify a new European Union constitution as soon as possible and he described Eurosceptics' objections as "dumb". The Prime Minister's strong declaration of support for the constitution ensured Europe will be a main battleground in British politics in the run-up to the general election expected in May next year.

Tony Blair pledged yesterday that Britain would agree and ratify a new European Union constitution as soon as possible and he described Eurosceptics' objections as "dumb". The Prime Minister's strong declaration of support for the constitution ensured Europe will be a main battleground in British politics in the run-up to the general election expected in May next year.

Following the terrorist massacre in Madrid two weeks ago, and the subsequent change of government in Spain, prospects of EU agreement on the constitution have revived dramatically. Spain and Poland are ready to ease the objections that blocked a deal last December, making it highly likely that agreement will be reached.

Mr Blair, who would have been happy to see the new EU treaty delayed until after the general election, now favours a quick resolution - possibly before June's European Parliament elections - and speedy ratification by Parliament. Yesterday, the Prime Minister said the constitution would be "a good thing for Britain and Europe". He added: "I think we should do it as soon as possible because it is important first of all that we debate according to reality ... and not according to myths." He insisted he would not back down over Britain's "red lines" in the negotiations.

Mr Blair's strategy is a high-risk one, because going on the offensive over Europe could alienate some voters - and newspapers - ahead of the election. The Tories, who will stage a Commons debate on the constitution next Tuesday, are delighted it is back on the agenda.

Last night, Michael Howard renewed his call for Mr Blair to concede a referendum and said he intended to renegotiate the agreement if his party wins power. He said: "The proposed EU constitution which Tony Blair has signed up to will profoundly change the way our country is run. This constitution is unacceptable to the people of this country and that is why Tony Blair is afraid to let us have our say in a referendum."

The Prime Minister faces a tough battle to force the legislation implementing the new EU treaty through Parliament before the next election. The House of Lords is expected to vote for a referendum, a move supported by some Labour MPs.

Mr Blair's aides said he was anxious to have the blueprint agreed "in black and white" so he could tackle head-on Eurosceptic "myths" that it would create a European superstate.

One said: "It is a good thing, it makes a much cleaner debate. At least then the battle will be about something of substance rather than what we are supposed to be selling down the river or not."

In a rebuke to his critics, Mr Blair argued that the former Communist countries about to join the EU were unlikely to agree to anything that signed away sovereignty. "The idea that people around that table, many of whom are new members who have fought for years to achieve nationhood want to give it away is something that is a bit dumb," he said.

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