Straw attacked for abandoning EU vote

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Indy Politics

The British referendum on the European constitution was formally shelved yesterday but the Foreign Secretary faced eurosceptic claims that he was introducing some of its elements "by the back door".

Jack Straw refused to declare the constitution dead, but Tony Blair is certain to face a row at the EU summit in Brussels on 16 June with Jacques Chirac, the French President, and Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, for abandoning the ratification of the treaty.

Mr Straw hinted that Mr Blair would make the priority for the British presidency of the EU in July the economic reforms that were attacked by M. Chirac as the "Anglo-Saxon way". He said the EU "has to come to terms with the forces of globalisation".

Neil O'Brien of the "no" campaign said: "Jack Straw has today explicitly refused to give voters an assurance that the EU will not still implement parts of the constitution without a referendum. Just days after the "no" votes they are clearly thinking about how to go ahead by the back door."

The campaign claims the Government's hidden agenda is to implement the "EU constitution lite".

MPs also suspect that ministers will seek to lead the EU out of the crisis during the six-months British presidency from 1 July by trying to slip through parts of the constitution without giving the British electorate a direct say.

Mr Straw denied, however, that he was seeking to introduce the constitution "by the back door" but he made it clear that Britain would be willing to see some measures implemented without a referendum, such as greater checks by national parliaments over the European commission, which would not require treaty changes.

The Foreign Secretary kept open the option of reviving the referendum, but few believe that is a realistic option after the "no" votes by the French and the Dutch. MPs were left in no doubt that there would be no further progress on the Government bill to implement the referendum. Mr Straw said until the consequences of France and the Netherlands being unable to ratify were clarified, "it would not in our judgement be sensible to set a date for the second reading".

He said the EU faced a period of difficulty, adding: "The constitutional treaty is the property of the EU as a whole. It is now for European leaders to reach conclusions on how to deal with the situation."

Robin Cook, the former Foreign Secretary, said Mr Straw had carefully avoided saying it was dead so as not to be blamed by the French and Germans for being "the obstacle that caused it to crash''.

Menzies Campbell, the Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman, said: "I think Mr Straw had no option. It was a pretty skilful performance. The tightrope was pretty narrow." He supported Mr Straw in saying that some parts of the constitution could still be implemented, including opening the council of ministers to the public, and EU institutions to freedom of information requirements.

MPs on all sides lined up to declare the constitution dead. Dennis Skinner, the eurosceptic Labour MP for Bolsover, suggested Mr Straw should send a video of the Monty Python "dead parrot" sketch to the EU leaders before the summit.

Ian Davidson, the Labour MP for Glasgow Pollock, said Mr Straw had "made the best of a bad job - he is saying it is dead but he cannot say so in case he gets the blame". Frank Field, the former Labour minister, called on Mr Straw to publish a list of the items from the constitution the government was willing to implement without a referendum.

For the Tories, Liam Fox, the shadow foreign secretary, said: "I may no longer practice medicine but I can tell a corpse when I see one. This constitution is a case for the morgue. "

On the Continent, Mr Blair was facing pressure over the effective abandonment of the British referendum and for refusing to negotiate over the UK's annual budget rebate.

In an atmosphere of mounting recrimination, diplomats predicted that Mr Blair could find himself cast as the villain at this month's EU summit. Other capitals are furious with the UK for pre-empting the summit by making its declaration that the British vote is now on ice.

France, Germany and Luxembourg, which holds the EU presidency, have already called for the ratification process to continue. France's European Affairs Minister, Catherine Colonna said yesterday: "It's a question of democracy. It's not for one member of the EU to decide for the others, or to block the process of ratification."