PM draws his lines in the sand before debate starts on EU draft treaty

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has ordered Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, to adopt a more flexible negotiating strategy in the talks over a new constitution for the European Union.

The Prime Minister wants the Government to focus on a handful of "red line" issues -such as retaining the veto on tax, social security and defence - rather than entering the negotiations with a long list of amendments to the draft treaty drawn up by a convention chaired by the former president of France Valery Giscard d'Estaing. His proposals will be presented to today's summit of EU leaders in Greece, with several countries, including Germany, expected to demand that the text is not watered down to accommodate Britain.

Heads of government will agree a start of this autumn for an inter-governmental conference (IGC) of member states to finalise the blueprint, with the treaty likely to be agreed next spring.

The change of tactics by Mr Blair is expected to result in Britain dropping objections to plans by the convention to appoint a Foreign Minister, and for the UK to agree to extend the use of qualified majority voting on issues outside its "red line" areas.

The Foreign Office argues that the EU's founding fathers avoided labels such as "minister" because they would give the impression the Union was becoming a superstate. But a Downing Street source said yesterday: "Whether we like it or not, the media will call the new foreign chief the EU's Foreign Minister, so it's not worth having a big row about it."

The source added: "There is no point in entering the IGC with a shopping list of 125 amendments. If we do, then we won't win anything. It will be much better to concentrate on about six key areas that really matter."

Some Blair advisers believe the tougher stance favoured by the Foreign Office could unwittingly play into the hands of Eurosceptics in Britain. "If we attack the convention's proposals all the time, we are sending more negative messages about the EU," said one Blair aide. "We need to present a more balanced picture, or we will just reinforce people's prejudices about Europe."

During this morning's summit debate, the EU member states will welcome M. Giscard's blueprint as a basis for discussion. But already sharp differences are emerging. Joschka Fischer, the German Foreign Minister, has asked for the draft to be accepted in full.

Although France has some problems with the document, Catherine Colonna, the spokeswoman for President Jacques Chirac, backed the German approach, describing the convention's work as "of great quality" and a "qualitative leap". There was "no question of starting from scratch," she added.

The proposal to appoint a new president or chairman of the European Council has been attacked by Austria and Finland and is viewed with hostility by other small states. Poland, which will join the EU next year, and Spain are resisting proposals that would weaken voting rights and France is opposed to ending its national veto in two areas: audio-visual services and decisions on the Common Agricultural Policy. Meanwhile, Jean-Claude Junc-ker, the pro-integration Prime Minister of Luxembourg, has said he is "profoundly disappointed" with the draft.

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