Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, indicated yesterday that the Government would accept a European constitution, in what is a significant change of heart for the Government.
Mr Straw said there was a strong case for a declaration of "principles" for the EU, even if that could develop into something seen by Eurosceptics as a pan-European constitution.
Speaking in The Hague, the Foreign Secretary also called for the national veto to be scrapped in some key areas, such as asylum and immigration, arguing that majority voting by EU countries would speed up decision-making.
Yesterday's speech was delivered one week before the launch of a convention on the future of Europe, which will help prepare for crucial changes in 2004 when the EU is due to admit up to 10 new countries. The intervention reflects a new confidence in Britain's ability to set the agenda and a belief that the federalist heyday is over.
Mr Straw backed the idea of a statement of "what the EU is for and how it can add value" spelling out where member states' responsibilities lie.
He added: "Put like that, few people could object. But call it a constitution and suddenly, for some, it doesn't look like such a good idea. My own view is that we shouldn't get hung up about the labels.
"Yes, most countries are founded on single-text, written constitutions. But just because an entity has a constitution doesn't make it a state. Many organisations, including the Labour Party, have constitutions. It's the substance that matters, not the name."
In fact the change may have something to do with the Government's preoccupation with public opinion.
A Eurobarometer survey released in December showed that in the UK 58 per cent of people backed a European constitution, while 10 per cent were opposed and 33 per cent replied "don't know". That leaves British support not far behind the EU average of 67 per cent.
Mr Straw's comments were attacked by Tim Collins, the shadow Cabinet Office minister, who argued that "constitutions are what govern single states" and that such a change would be "a very unwelcome one".