'Red line' issues rushed before EU summit

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Tony Blair has failed to win any early concessions over his key "red line" issues in the draft EU constitution, setting the stage for a fierce confrontation at a summit of European leaders in June.

Just one month before the crunch meeting expected to finalise the constitution, the latest text produced by the Irish presidency of the EU still includes proposals to axe the national veto in limited areas of taxation and social security, some foreign policy issues and criminal law.

The document excises references to EU competence on energy, which was one area where Britain had difficulties because of fears that North Sea oil would be embroiled. But these problems had already been resolved to Whitehall's satisfaction in documents from last year.

The bigger problem concerns Mr Blair's "red lines" over which he has very little room for manoeuvre since his decision to call a referendum on the outcome of any constitutional treaty.

After last December's Brussels summit, which collapsed in acrimony in December, the prime minister argued that Britain had won concessions on these issues. He told the House of Commons that consensus was close on 82 issues, including changes to the draft that were "important" for the UK to ensure the veto remained in areas such as tax and social security.

But when foreign ministers meet on Monday to resume detailed talks, the text on the table will be almost identical to one drawn up by the last, Italian, presidency of the EU - before the Brussels summit.

The Irish presidency says that it is "not yet making new proposals" on the scope of majority voting, but is including the last relevant Italian plans "for ease of reference".

Senior diplomats are not expecting any big breakthrough in next week's meeting. That makes it almost certain that Mr Blair will have to resolve at least two of his "red line" issues at a tense eleventh-hour standoff at the EU summit on June 17-18.

A British official said: "We are coming up to the first discussion of these issues by foreign ministers and we would not have expected radical changes to the position [to be] put forward before the Brussels summit ... We expect we will have to work to secure our "red lines" in the coming weeks."

Yesterday's document breaks new ground over the size of the European Commission - a highly sensitive issue to small countries that want to keep the automatic right to send a commissioner to Brussels.

Meanwhile the Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, insisted that the EU constitution should be ratified by all 25 member states before coming into force. France and Germany have floated the idea that it should be adopted if 20 nations have ratified it within two years - leaving the others in legal limbo.