British plan to put EU treaty on ice gathers more support

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The Independent Online

Jack Straw, the British Foreign Secretary, is expected to announce to the House of Commons on Monday that the Bill to authorise a referendum on the EU constitution will be put on ice.

Mr Straw will tell MPs in a statement to Parliament that the 'no' votes by France and the Netherlands have thrown the treaty into such uncertainty that no further progress can be made on the Bill.

Theexpected initiative would avoid pronouncing the constitution dead but delay any referendum in the UK until after France and the Netherlands have reversed their emphatic "no" votes on the constitution.

British-inspired plans to put the constitution on ice gained ground yesterday when the the European Commission changed its position. To become law, the constitution needs to be ratified by all 25 nations but Germany, France, and Luxembourg, which holds the EU presidency, have called for the ratification of the treaty to continue. That raises the prospect of a clash at an EU summit in Brussels in two weeks.

Yesterday, a spokeswoman for the European Commission president, Jose Manuel Barroso, said he had not "formed his view" on the idea of a delay. In a statement Mr Barroso added only that all countries "must be able to express themselves on the project" rather than calling for the ratification process to continue.

One source argued: "We have to be realistic, we have to recognise realities. A pause is very realistic." Mr Blair already has the backing of the Czech government and is courting the Danish premier, Anders Fogh Rasmussen. Meanwhile the Irish premier, Bertie Ahern, did not refer directly to the ratification process in a speech.

Mr Blair believes countries that face referendums on the constitution know they could not hope to persuade voters to back a treaty which could not, as things stand, come into effect. However, the UK is determined not to accept the blame for declaring the treaty dead.

The looming clash over the future of the constitution came as the consequences of the votes in the Netherlands and France became clear. The French and Dutch rejections of the constitution are being blamed in part on a reaction against the admission to the EU of 10 new nations last year.

Also, many voters in France staged a rebellion against the "Anglo-Saxon" free market liberalism they see behind many EU policies. The malaise gripping the EU will become Mr Blair's personal problem next month when Britain takes over the six-month rotating presidency of the EU.

Diplomats are bracing themselves for new obstacles to plans to open membership talks with Turkey on 3 October, and over moves to start similar discussions with Croatia. EU member states have agreed to admit Romania and Bulgaria in 2007, but that could be put back by a year.

Meanwhile, EU leaders are preparing for a battle over a proposed law designed to open up the EU market in services. The so-called "Bolkestein directive" proved to be a controversial issue in the French referendum.

France may now move to kill the directive, which is backed by the UK, even though it has already been watered down.

That would deal a blow to the so-called Lisbon agenda, championed by Mr Blair, which aims to boost growth within the stagnating economy of the EU.

Meanwhile, hopes of pushing for more reform of the Common Agricultural Policy during trade talks this year seem doomed.

Amid the fallout from the twin "no" votes, the EU commissioner for enlargement, Olli Rehn, promised that the enlargement of the EU would continue, but accepted that the referendum results had raised fundamental questions about popular support for continuing expansion.

Krisztina Nagy, Mr Rehn's spokeswoman, said the Commission was preparing to write to the Bulgarian and Romanian governments to list the areas in which it still had concerns about their internal reforms. If those are not fulfilled, the two nations' membership dates could be delayed for a year. EU countries could, in theory, still block their membership by refusing to ratify their accession treaties ­ though that is regarded as the "nuclear option".

More problematic for the UK is its drive to start membership talks with Turkey on 3 October. Not only is France, and now the Netherlands, likely to be wary, but the main German opposition party is opposed to Turkish membership of the EU, and it could come to power in elections scheduled for September. EU heads of government have agreed to open the talks but all member countries will have to agree a negotiating mandate with Turkey at the end of this month.

Even before the "no" votes in France and the Netherlands, Austria had threatened to block EU membership talks with Turkey if there were no prior agreement to start talks with Croatia. They have been held up in a row about co-operation with the UN war crimes tribunal over the handover of a wanted former general, Ante Gotovina.

The Balkan countries know that their chances of membership are receding. Bosnia's Foreign Minister, Mladen Ivanic, said: "It is obvious the EU's problems will push the expansion issue down the agenda."There is alarm in London at reports the Germans have floated again the idea of creating an inner core in the EU which could go ahead with ratification of the treaty in spite of the "no" votes. The German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, and Jacques Chirac, the French President, will hold bilateral talks tomorrow to prepare their strategy for the EU council.