Blair signs new EU Constitution

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair joined other EU leaders today in putting his signature to the new European Constitution - as Jack Straw disclosed that the promised referendum on the treaty would not be held until 2006.

Tony Blair joined other EU leaders today in putting his signature to the new European Constitution - as Jack Straw disclosed that the promised referendum on the treaty would not be held until 2006.

The ceremony took place in the ornate surroundings of the Palazzo dei Conservatori in the heart of ancient Rome where the original treaty establishing the Common Market was signed 47 years ago.

It marked the start of a two-year ratification process in which the treaty has to be accepted into law by the national parliaments of all the member states.

Like a number of the leaders putting their names to the document, Mr Blair is committed to holding a referendum on the treaty - any one of which could derail the whole process if the people vote "no".

Foreign Secretary Mr Straw, accompanying Mr Blair in Rome, disclosed that Britain would probably not hold its referendum until the spring of 2006, after at least some of the others have taken place.

"No precise date has been accepted and it depends partly on the parliamentary process," he told BBC Radio 4's Today programme.

"It is likely to be in early 2006 for the simple reason that in the autumn of 2005 we have the presidency of the EU and it would be practically almost impossible to be running the presidency with a referendum."

He even hinted that the referendum may not go ahead if one of the other member states holding a referendum, such as France, had already voted to reject the treaty.

"All sorts of things are possible," he said.

He added that the treaty represented a "solemn obligation" on behalf of the British Government and that they would do all they could to ensure its ratification.

"We will proceed to seek ratification of this treaty according to our own national constitutional arrangements and in this case it is a vote not only of the British Parliament but also of the British people," he said.

Mr Blair knows that he faces a difficult task if he is to persuade British voters to overcome their traditional Euroscepticism and agree the treaty.

Shadow foreign secretary Michael Ancram reaffirmed the Tories' determination to oppose the constitution, denouncing today's signing ceremony in Rome.

"What we are seeing today is the opposite of democracy in action," he said.

"The pomp and ceremony of signing a treaty which the British people have indicated in opinion poll after opinion poll they don't want shows, in my view, a contempt for the people."

The ceremony took place against a backdrop of the crisis over the appointment of a new European Commission.

It was the first chance that EU leaders had had to meet since incoming Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso announced he was withdrawing his entire team of commissioners in the face of opposition from the European Parliament.

MEPs made clear that they were not prepared to accept the appointment of Italian justice commissioner Rocco Buttiglione after he said that he regarded homosexuality as a sin.

The timetable for events in Rome left only limited scope for informal discussions among the leaders, who were expected to talk more fully at next week's EU summit in Brussels.

Mr Straw said that it was up to Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi to decide whether he would continue backing Mr Buttiglione as his choice for the commission.

"It is not for us to put pressure on any other head of government because nominations to the European Commission are a matter for heads of state and government," Mr Straw said.

"Each head of state or government has the right to make his own nominations."

In his formal address at the signing ceremony, Mr Barroso made no mention of the dispute over the commission and instead expressed his hope that the treaty would now be ratified.

"The commission, which I will have the honour of leading, will apply the provisions of the constitution in the spirit in which they were intended, where these provisions are consistent with current practice and would not be incompatible with the existing treaties," he said.

"I hope that tomorrow the national parliaments and European voters will, in turn, shoulder their responsibility and approve this constitution, thus opening the way to a new union that will be the living embodiment of European brotherhood."