Blair will claim achievements despite split over voting

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair is due to tell the Commons today that Britain made significant gains at the European summit in Brussels, despite the failure by European Union leaders to reach agreement on a new constitution.

The Prime Minister plans to reject the idea that the EU faces a crisis after the summit collapsed over the weekend amid a row over voting power, saying that the Union will carry on under its existing rules.

In a statement to MPs, Mr Blair is due to argue that Britain made real progress in Brussels by securing several changes to the draft constitution. These included killing off proposals to end the right of member states to veto decisions on foreign policy, defence, tax and social security, and clarifying the EU's role in criminal justice.

But there was no agreement to halt moves towards greater economic co-operation, which Britain opposes.

The concessions did not form part of a written agreement because there was no deal on a new constitution. But the British Government is confident that the concessions will be retained when Ireland, which takes over the EU's rotating presidency next month, tries to draw up a new blueprint.

Yesterday, Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said he doubted whether the dispute over voting rights would be settled within the next six months. He thought it may be resolved in the second half of next year.

Ministers hope the summit's failure could ease the pressure on Mr Blair to hold a referendum on the constitution. Mr Straw said the new blueprint was "not on the agenda" now and appealed to supporters of a referendum to look closely at the concessions Britain had achieved.

Mr Straw told the BBC's Breakfast with Frost programme he hoped people would "examine the reality of what was achieved, not the scares of one or two newspapers". He said: "This does not involve any fundamental shift of power between member states and Europe. What is does involve is some shift from the EU to member states."

Yesterday, Government sources dismissed reports that Mr Blair had hinted he might be moving towards a referendum in his post-summit press conference. He insisted he remained opposed to the idea. Responding to the call by 31 Labour MPs for a referendum in a letter to The Independent, the Prime Minister said: "I would simply say let us wait and see what we get as the European constitution before we decide whether it is of sufficient fundamental importance you need a referendum on it. If, indeed, it is the case that tax, social security, foreign affairs and defence all rest with the nation state, then I think it a bizarre thing to say it has fundamentally altered the relationship between the member state and the EU."

The summit's failure could mean that the constitution becomes a less prominent issue in next June's elections to the European Parliament. But Labour could be at a disadvantage if the constitution becomes a hotly disputed topicin the run-up to the general election, expected in 2005:the Tories would fight the election pledging not to sign the new treaty if they gained power.

Another headache for Mr Blair is that France and Germany are threatening to press ahead with an inner core of countries that co-operate on specific issues. Yesterday, British officials dismissed the idea as a reflex action by France, with one source saying: "It doesn't have any real substance ... When a real proposal comes along, as on defence co-operation, we engage and we work out a deal acceptable to everyone."

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