Poland saved Blair from signing up to federalist EU, says Howard

The Conservatives claimed yesterday that Poland had saved Britain from signing a federalist European Union constitution by blocking agreement at the Brussels summit at the weekend.

Michael Howard, the Tory leader, told the Commons that Britain's reprieve from the new EU blueprint owed nothing to Mr Blair, who he said would have signed up. He said it was due to the courage of Leszek Miller, the Polish Prime Minister - who is wheelchair-bound after a helicopter accident - and Spain, who "stood up for their principles" by opposing a new system of voting rights.

But Mr Blair replied that it was "a complete and total myth" that Poland would have blocked the new blueprint if the dispute over its voting strength had been resolved. Accusing Mr Howard of opportunism, he told him: "The extraordinary thing is that you thought it was a terrible humiliation to go there and get an agreement. Now there isn't an agreement, it is a terrible humiliation not to have got one."

In a statement on the summit, Mr Blair said consensus was close on 82 issues, including changes to the draft constitution that were "very important" for Britain to ensure that tax, EU finance, social security and criminal law remained the province of nation states. The Prime Minister said the EU had time to resolve the row over voting power because a new system would not take effect until 2009. In a strong attack, Mr Howard accused Mr Blair of "dissembling" about the blueprint, changing his mind about it and caving in to Britain's EU partners. He claimed government representatives had proposed 200 amendments on the convention which drafted the constitution, and yet only 11 were accepted.

The Tory leader renewed his party's call for a referendum when the constitution is revived, saying Mr Blair should "trust the people".

He called for "a flexible Europe", whose nation states had room to breathe. He asked: "If some wish to integrate more closely, why should we stop them? Why can't we say to our partners in Europe: we don't want to stop you doing what you want to do, as long as you don't make us do what we don't want to do?"

Mr Blair dismissed hints that France and Germany would now lead an inner core of EU members after the summit's collapse, saying he did not believe anyone wanted a two-tier Europe. But he said there would be areas, such as on defence, where groups of countries moved ahead and Britain would be included.

The Prime Minister accused the Tories of pursuing their real agenda of wanting to pull Britain out of Europe. He said it would be a serious mistake for any British government to absent itself from the negotiations on Europe's future and to allow decisions vital to security and prosperity to be made by others. "We must continue to shape the future of Europe in ways that reflect our national interest," he said. "We can either be on the touchline shouting our criticism, or on the field as a ... successful player."

Charles Kennedy, the Liberal Democrat leader, described the summit's failure as "extremely disappointing". He warned that the prospect of a two-tier Europe could prejudice Mr Blair's attempt to remain at its heart.

David Heathcoat-Amory, a Tory MP on the convention which drew up the constitution, said: "It was a great day for Europe when the Poles did what the British Government should have done, which is to block this wretched document."