EU constitution is sent into deep hibernation

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The Independent Online

European Union leaders bowed to the inevitable last night by consigning the proposed EU constitution to the deep freeze after its rejection in France and the Netherlands.

European Union leaders bowed to the inevitable last night by freezing the proposed constitution after its rejection in France and the Netherlands.

The EU summit in Brussels agreed that a "pause for reflection" was needed amid concern that "no" votes in more referendums could inflict further damage to the faltering EU project.

But amid confusion over how the EU should respond to its political crisis, the summit could not agree on whether to pronounce the proposed treaty dead or on how long any "period of reflection" should last.

Jean-Claude Juncker, Prime Minister of Luxembourg, which holds the EU's rotating Presidency, said: "We all believe that the constitution is the right answer to the many questions that Europeans are asking themselves. We believe that the ratification process must continue. There will not be a better treaty. There cannot be even a glimpse of a putative renegotiation."

Douglas Alexander, Britain's Minister for Europe, insisted that there was a "growing consensus" for the "period of reflection" proposed by the Government but admitted that some countries were still "coming to terms" with the treaty's rejection in France and the Netherlands.

The leaders scrapped the November 2006 date for the new EU treaty to be ratified and Mr Juncker said it had been put back mid-2007. But French officials said there was no firm timetable. They said the priority was "to analyse the reasons for the 'no' vote and understand this expression of a kind of divorce between the EU and its citizens".

The outbreak of what British ministers saw as "realism" contrasted with the initial response of France, Germany and the European Commission this month that the process of ratifying the treaty should go on because 10 nations had already approved it. Last night's embarrassing retreat was a partial victory for the British Government, which shelved the legislation allowing a referendum on the treaty after the French and Dutch threw the EU into turmoil by voting "no".

Tony Blair won more allies for his call for the constitution to be kicked into the long grass so the EU could debate its future.

Jacques Chirac, the French President, proposed to "address those crucial issues on which the future of the Union, and each of our countries, depends". He called for "a pause for reflection that will allow us to regain the confidence of the citizens" to "close the gulf that risks getting deeper between Europe and its people". He hinted that the EU might need to reconsider plans to allow Turkey to join.

Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch Prime Minister, said: "We need to have a big debate both at the national and the European level. We need a pause for reflection. Hasty decisions will not serve Europe well."

Gerhard Schröder, the German Chancellor, said: "A pause is justified."

Mr Blair said the EU needed to concentrate on the global economy and competitiveness; security issues such as crime, drug trafficking and terrorism and Europe's place in the world.

"Let's get the politics right first, then the constitution," he said. Denmark followed Britain's lead by announcing it would postpone its referendum without setting a new date. "We do need to face political reality; we cannot continue as if nothing has happened," said Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the Danish Prime Minister.

The Czech Republic and Spain proposed a one-year extension of the 2006 deadline for ratification by all members. But other nations were reluctant to set a deadline, arguing that this would risk another series of referendum re jections and said the delay should be open-ended.

Mr Blair's spokesman said: "There is a growing consensus that the best thing is to have a pause for reflection so that we can think about the implications for Europe as a whole.

"We should use this period to have a good debate about the direction of Europe."

Portugal said any pause should be followed by a concerted EU effort to revive the constitution.