Straw to sound death knell for EU treaty

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Indy Politics

The Foreign Secretary was today sounding the death knell for the planned EU constitution, with the announcement that Britain's plans for a referendum to approve the treaty are to be put on hold.

The Foreign Secretary was today sounding the death knell for the planned EU constitution, with the announcement that Britain's plans for a referendum to approve the treaty are to be put on hold.

Jack Straw is expected to tell MPs in a Commons statement that the Government's Referendum Bill is to be suspended indefinitely following the emphatic "no" votes last week in France and the Netherlands.

With the constitutional treaty requiring the ratification of all 25 member states if it is to be implemented, ministers believe that it is pointless carrying on in the light of the French and Dutch votes.

The announcement will be seen as a rebuff to French President Jacques Chirac and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who issued a renewed call at the weekend for the ratification process to continue.

Following talks between the two leaders in Berlin on Saturday, Mr Chirac's spokesman insisted one country alone should not be able to decide the fate of the treaty and that each of the 25 "must be able to express itself in its turn".

The clash is likely to come to a head when the heads of governments gather in Brussels on June 16 for a summit to try to find some way out of the crisis now engulfing the EU.

While Britain does not want to be seen publicly to be killing off the treaty, ministers nevertheless believe they will have the support of those member states still to hold referendums who fear they could now struggle to win them.

Most MPs believe that Mr Blair, too, will be relieved to be able to drop a referendum that he was almost certain to lose.

The decision to promise a popular vote on the constitutional treaty was essentially a tactic designed to ensure that Europe did not become an issue in the general election.

Today's announcement is likely to be couched as diplomatically as possible as minister's will want to avoid unnecessarily antagonising Mr Chirac.

The French president was badly damaged by the outcome of the referendum in his country, which he was forced to call largely as a result of Mr Blair's decision to hold one.

It is hardly likely to ease relations between the two leaders that Mr Blair now seems set to escape the humiliation that Mr Chirac suffered at the hands of his voters.

The Prime Minister's former adviser on Europe, Sir Stephen Wall warned at the weekend, that Mr Chirac could still make life difficult for Britain. "He's a lame duck but he's rather a vigorous lame duck with a bite," he said.

Mr Blair has to take on the rotating EU presidency from next month and he could also find himself coming under renewed pressure to give up Britain's £3 billion-a-year rebate - something the Government is determined to resist.

Meanwhile, Mr Blair's old ally, Peter Mandelson, said that the latest turn of events could lead to him actually prolonging his tenure at No 10.

Mr Blair had been widely expected to step down as Prime Minister after the UK referendum - which had been due to take place early next year - in favour of Chancellor Gordon Brown.

However Mr Mandelson, now the EU trade commissioner, suggested that he could stay on for another two or three years in order to sort out the mess in Europe.

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