Chirac gets go-ahead for European 'fast set'

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The Independent Online

A deal on the EU's first constitution has opened the way to a multi-speed Europe, with France pledging to forge ahead in key areas without Britain and other more Eurosceptic nations.

A deal on the EU's first constitution has opened the way to a multi-speed Europe, with France pledging to forge ahead in key areas without Britain and other more Eurosceptic nations.

The divisions were laid bare by open disagreement over who should be be the next president of the European Commission.

The two leading candidates to succeed Romano Prodi withdrew their names in the wake of the acrimonious summit, although the EU's foreign policy chief, Javier Solana, said it would be hard for him to say "no" if asked.

In exchange for winning the right to keep the national veto on issues such as tax and social security, Tony Blair has agreed to smooth the path of groups of nations that want to create a fast track to integration.

Immediately after toasting the agreement on a constitution in champagne, the French President, Jacques Chirac, promised to create a new group of countries co-operating more closely in areas such as social security. A new clause in the constitution would give France the ability "to act without Great Britain but with others", the President said.

Mr Chirac's satisfaction was matched by disgruntlement elsewhere. Spain's Prime Minister, Jose Luis Rodriguez Zapatero, was accused by the conservative opposition of accepting a reformed voting system that excluded their nation from "the group of important countries". The Polish Prime Minister, Marek Belka, faced similar criticism from the right.

All 25 EU nations must ratify the treaty for it to come into force, and at least half a dozen will hold referendums. The upsurge in Euroscepticism in this month's elections across the EU bodes ill for the process.

Even the Pope added to criticism of the 300-page document, agreed in the early hours of yesterday morning, for its absence of any reference to religion. Joaquin Navarro-Valls, a Vatican spokesman, expressed regret "for the opposition of some governments to the explicit recognition of Europe's Christian roots".

Under the deal, new initiatives could cover harmonisation of corporate tax bases, measures to combat cross-border tax fraud, the creation of common social security rules for migrant workers, harmonisation of criminal penalties and the establishment of a European public prosecutor.

France and Germany have long flirted with the prospect of creating a new inner core, or "pioneer group", within the EU. With an enlarged EU now made up of 25 nations, the constitution acknowledges a new fact of political life: that countries cannot be obliged to take part in more integration than they wish, but that they should not be able to stop others going ahead.

The need for a more flexible EU was underlined by the results of last week's European elections, in which sceptics polled well in several nations - including the UK, Sweden and Poland, where there has been a backlash against Brussels.

For Mr Blair, the concession is politically cost-free at home. The Conservative Party leader, Michael Howard, has called for the creation of a multi-speed Europe, allowing Britain to minimise its role in European integration.

But the decision marks a significant shift in British policy and an acceptance that, in some areas, the UK is now likely to be marginalised. It is a stark contrast to the policy of Labour when it took power in 1997. At that time, as the euro was being created, it fought a long, losing battle to be given a seat in the group of countries inside the single currency - even though the UK had excluded itself from membership.

The shift also poses potential difficulties for Mr Blair if he wants to join the euro. Under the constitution, the 12 countries that are part of the single currency could decide to axe the national veto on tax issues. If Britain later wanted to opt into the currency, it would then have to accept the rules, including majority voting on tax.

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