Government ready to give way on EU constitution

The Government will tone down its opposition to a new draft treaty for the European Union today, ahead of a tough round of negotiations starting next month.

Ministers will demand a series of changes to the EU constitution proposed by a convention chaired by the former French president, Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. But the Government's statement carefully avoids any mention of drawing "red lines" in the talks and argues that much of what is on the table is good for the UK.

The more positive stance reflects Tony Blair's desire to avoid heated public rows with Britain's EU partners, which he believes would undermine his long-term goal of taking the country into the euro.

Europe's heads of government have the final say and Italy, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, wants a deal by December. Britain will agree to extend the number of issues to be decided by majority voting to areas such as asylum, where the Government believes it would be in the national interest to have a common European policy.

The White Paper will raise only technical queries about plans for an EU foreign minister, a proposal that provoked grave doubts in Whitehall. Now the Government says it will welcome the initiative if the detail is right.

M. Giscard will be praised for proposing a new permanent chairman of the European Council, where national governments meet, and for giving national parliaments power to block measures that impinge on their responsibilities.

But the document will promise to block proposals to end the national veto on limited areas of taxation and EU revenue collection, social security, and a European criminal procedural law and public prosecutor. It will say Britain cannot accept a "mutual defence guarantee" in the EU, or plans that would allow an inner group of countries to forge ahead with military co-operation.

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