Leaders 'close to deal' on EU constitution

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Europe's leaders are close to a deal on the vexed issue of the European Union's proposed new constitution, ministers indicated last night.

Europe's leaders are close to a deal on the vexed issue of the European Union's proposed new constitution, ministers indicated last night.

Hopes of a breakthrough rose as Tony Blair met his Irish and Spanish counterparts in London in the run-up to the crucial Brussels summit where the future shape of the union will top the agenda.

The Government is battling to ensure extending EU power does not cross its so-called "red lines", preserving Britain's veto on taxation, foreign policy and social issues. But it is believed to be satisfied these non-negotiable areas can be defended in the negotiations in Brussels on 17 and 18 July.

Crucially the new Spanish administration led by Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero is also preparing to compromise in a row over protecting its voting rights in the expanded EU.

Mr Zapatero told a Downing Street press conference: "The Spanish government's position is clearly in favour of having a constitutional treaty in the month of June." The pre-summit horse-trading is being conducted by Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, who is touring capitals as the current EU president. Five days ago he said there was only a "50-50" chance of striking a deal by the end of the month. But a Whitehall source said the mood had become more positive, particularly in the light of the Spanish move. He said: "The atmosphere is more optimistic than it has been for a long while."

A senior minister told The Independent that Europe's leaders were "moving in the direction" of a deal. He said: "People have realised we need a nation-friendly constitution. I don't think any of the British red lines are menaced."

A deal that secures the red lines would be a major domestic boost for Mr Blair, helping Labour to counter Tory charges that the country's sovereignty is being threatened.

Mr Ahern revealed last night that the constitution would contain no reference to God or Christianity, an omission which will annoy the Italian and Polish governments.

Meanwhile, there is no clear sign of progress on the other key issue at Brussels - who will succeed Romano Prodi as president of the European Commission when he steps down in October. With no clear consensual candidate emerging yet, Javier Solana, the EU's foreign policy high representative, has surfaced as a possible contender. A respected political heavyweight who navigated the Iraq crisis and offended neither London nor Paris, he would be a strong compromise candidate acceptable to most national capitals. However, because Mr Solana is a socialist from a southern European country, he is not ideal for the job. Europe's centre-right parties, which are expected to emerge as the biggest group after the European elections, are demanding that the president comes from their ranks. A northern European nation is expected to win the post because Italy held it last time.

* Labour's support will slump to just 23 per cent in next week's European elections, according to an opinion poll which also shows the UK Independence Party breaking through into double figures. The survey, conducted by EOS Gallup Europe, puts Labour narrowly in second place, just three per cent ahead of the Liberal Democrats, on 20 per cent, with the Conservatives in the lead on 30 per cent. The telephone poll of around 750 people, conducted between 5-22 May, puts UKIP on 10 per cent with the Greens on 8 per cent.