Blair fights to retain Britain's EU power

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Tony Blair is likely to win an increase in Britain's number of votes in an expanded European Union at next month's summit of EU leaders in Nice.

Tony Blair is likely to win an increase in Britain's number of votes in an expanded European Union at next month's summit of EU leaders in Nice.

But the Prime Minister's hopes of using the extra votes to reassure the British public were undermined yesterday when Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, mapped out plans for a European government in which the European Commission's president would be elected by the people of Europe.

Speaking in Brussels, Mr Fischer called for member states to lose their vetoes over important policies such as taxation and social security, and demanded "a strong government that could crystallise from the [European] Council, or from the Commission".

Downing Street played down his plans as part of a long-term debate that would start after the Nice summit, and said the "time is not right" for an elected Commission president.

Ministers were confident Mr Blair would be able to portray Britain's new voting power as an important victory. There have been fears that with the influx of more smaller countries, Britian's voting powers would be diluted. However, under the various formulas under negotiation, Britain and the other large countries would increase their relative influence over the smaller ones. But Britian will not increase its power comparative to the other big players.

Britain commands 10 of the 87 votes in the Council of Ministers, the EU's main decision-making body, a formula related to population. Under plans to be tabled shortly and discussed in France, Britain would retain its place as one of the EU's "big four" nations with Germany, France and Italy. One option would give Britain 33 out of 330 votes when the EU expands, probably to include five new members by around 2005.Another would give it 15 out of 188 votes.

Ministers will trumpet the change as increasing rather than diluting Britain's influence "We are confident we will get a good deal on votes at the summit," one said yesterday.

In return, Britain would nominate only one member of the Commission instead of two. Chris Patten, the former Tory party chairman, is expected to stand down when his five-year term ends in 2005.

Britain would also have to allow an extension of qualified majority voting in the Council of Ministers on issues including transport, the environment, industry, culture, and the location of EU institutions.

But Downing Street insisted yesterday Mr Blair would not give ground on the areas "red-lined" by the Government, which include tax, social security, border control and changes to the EU's governing treaties.

The Tories seized on Mr Fischer's remarks as further evidence of plans to create an "EU superstate" and warned that Mr Blair was planning to surrender the British veto in up to 40 policy areas. Francis Maude, the shadow Foreign Secretary, said: "While the EU's leaders talk of building an EU superstate, Tony Blair's motto is 'don't worry, nothing's happening, be happy'."

Geoff Hoon, the Secretary of State for Defence, called for greater co-operation by EU countries on defence but denied that plans for a 60,000-strong EU rapid-reaction force would lead to a European army.

He said: "I want to spell it out: no European army, no European cap badges, no European flags; a British contribution to European co-operation firmly under British control and deployed at the behest of a British prime minister."