We may agree to disagree on EU, says UK

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Indy Politics

Britian warned for the first time yesterday that the European Union may fail to reach agreement on a new governing treaty at what has been billed as a make-or-break summit next month.

In a significant change of strategy, the Government declared that "life will go on" if EU leaders do not approve the blueprint to be discussed at a meeting in Brussels on 13 December. A senior cabinet minister said yesterday: "It is highly desirable but not absolutely necessary to have a treaty. We hope to get agreement in Brussels but we won't know until we are there."

Ministers said there was a crucial difference between next month's meeting and the marathon summit in Nice three years ago, where agreement was vital to allow 10 new members to join the EU next spring. They said the Nice Treaty would be a "fall-back" position if the new constitution were not agreed. Another reason why the new treaty may be scuppered is that several countries have promised to hold a referendum on it. All EU member states must approve it before it is ratified.

Yesterday's change of tactics by Britain was intended to send a message to its EU partners that it would not sign the new treaty unless it was able to win further concessions. "It could all fall into place; equally, it could be that it doesn't gell," a British official said.

A Downing Street spokesman today did not deny reports of a change in rhetoricfrom the Government. He said: "We are not talking of failure. Our position is that we will continue to work closely with our partners to get a deal.

"Britain's negotiating position has been set out very clearly and we will hold to it."

Negotiations enter their crucial phase this week when Italy, which holds the EU's rotating presidency, will table revised proposals for a new constitution. They will be discussed by EU foreign ministers in Naples on Friday and Saturday.

British ministers want changes to the draft to ensure nation states, rather than the EU, remains in the driving seat on other policy issues including economic co-ordination, tax, the criminal law and financial contributions to the EU.