Acrimony, brinkmanship and a summit in turmoil

Blair and Chirac at odds over European 'red lines'

Britain was locked in a bitter struggle with France and Germany last night over the fate of the EU constitution as the French President, Jacques Chirac, sought to wrest back crucial concessions offered to Tony Blair.

The row, at a make-or-break summit of EU leaders in Brussels, threatened to scupper Mr Blair's campaign to protect his vaunted "red lines" in the negotiations over the treaty.

Underlining the tension, EU leaders also broke off talks last night without having agreed on a new President for the European Commission. Bertie Ahern, the prime minister of Ireland, who is chairing the talks, said leaders would return to the issue of the presidency tonight, saying of the possible candidates "from a long list, it is narrowing down to a short list"

Earlier, in constitution talks, France and Germany protested that Britain had been offered too many sweeteners, British officials hit back with a blunt warning that President Chirac and the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, would be to blame if the summit collapsed.

On Wednesday, the Irish offered Mr Blair concessions over taxation, social security and employment rights. The latest draft text removes all plans to axe the national veto over tax, one of the most important "red lines" for the UK. It also provides a new mechanism to prevent a country being outvoted on social security if it opposes a proposal.

Ireland also gave guarantees the Government believes will ensure a Charter of Fundamental Rights will not take precedence over British employment law, giving new entitlements such as the right to strike.

President Chirac rounded on the Irish for ceding too much ground to Mr Blair. He said: "The ambitions foreseen [for the constitution] are reduced ­ especially for tax and social security ­ by the clear position of one country, essentially the UK. This will be a real problem which will have to be discussed tomorrow [Friday]." His concerns were echoed by Mr Schröder, and by Belgium and Finland. He added that the whole enterprise was in danger of being blocked by one country.

British officials insisted that Mr Blair would stand his ground in the summit. One said: "These are choppy waters. They are trying to test our position. If they want to object they can take the rap by pulling it all down ­ not us."

When the leaders sat down to dinner last night another Anglo-French dispute loomed, this time over the choice of a European Commission president to succeed Romano Prodi at the end of October. France and Germany are backing the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt, who infuriated Mr Blair last year with his criticism of the US-led war in Iraq.

For his part, M. Chirac made it clear he could not support Chris Patten, the British EU commissioner, who was formally nominated for the top post yesterday by Europe's centre-right political grouping.

Many diplomats were expecting deadlock with neither candidate getting sufficient support. That could provide an opening for Luxembourg's Prime Minister, Jean-Claude Juncker, who is another favourite of the French and German leaders.

The Anglo-French spat was not the only problem faced by the Irish presidency, although it remained confident of avoiding a repeat of the damaging failure to agree on the constitution last December. Last week's European elections, which saw a record low EU turnout and Eurosceptic gains, have put added pressure on the 25 leaders of the enlarged EU to sink their differences and prove the bloc can work.

Thirteen smaller nations made it clear that they have problems with an Irish plan to solve the central blockage on the constitution, the issue of voting power in decision-making. There was also opposition from 10 nations to the plans to slim the size of the European Commission to 18 by 2014 ­ depriving nations of the automatic right to send a national representative to Brussels.

And there was further deadlock between Germany and France on one side and the Netherlands over the rules to police the eurozone.

But Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, shrugged of the disputes insisting that the summit was edging towards and historic agreement. Despite their tough rhetoric, British officials were hopeful that agreement could be reached today and that the other EU countries were staking out their opening negotiating positions yesterday.

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