'EU ratification process must continue'

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The Independent Online

The leaders of France and Germany committed themselves last night to pressing ahead with the planned EU constitution ratification process, despite its rejection by French and Dutch voters.

The leaders of France and Germany committed themselves last night to pressing ahead with the planned EU constitution ratification process, despite its rejection by French and Dutch voters.

The confirmation of their position came in an official statement issued following a hastily arranged Berlin meeting between the German Chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, and the French President, Jacques Chirac, ahead of an EU summit later this month. "The Chancellor and President Chirac were in agreement that the constitutional process must continue so that the views of each country are respected," said a German government spokesman. José Manuel Barroso, the European Commission president, has appealed to leaders to avert an "ideological rift" developing.

President Chirac and his German counterpart scheduled yesterday's emergency meeting to try to agree a common line against British-inspired plans to freeze the ratification process for the European constitution.

The two men were also expected to debate a package on future financing of the EU. This includes moves, backed by Berlin and Paris, to freeze the British budget rebate at the level of ¤4.6bn (£3bn), and then to reduce its value.

As Mr Chirac flew to Berlin, Mr Barroso urged the French leader and his colleagues to "turn a crisis into an opportunity" and argued: "It is vital that we use the present moment to forge a new consensus."

He warned Europe not to indulge in a "blame game" or an "ideological rift" between supporters of free markets and those who believe in government intervention. What was needed, Mr Barroso said, was "an intelligent synthesis between the market and the state, which can help Europe win and not lose in the face of globalisation".

Many believe that such a battle has emerged from the ashes of the two referendum "no" votes. After the results in France and the Netherlands, EU leaders have begun a fierce diplomatic struggle over whether to continue with the ratification process or to freeze it, as Tony Blair wants.

The row over ratification of the constitution, with the Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, expected to announce tomorrow that Britain is shelving its referendum plans, is seen as a proxy for a host of other issues. The French newspaper Le Figaro yesterday warned: "If London wins [the ratification dispute] it is a victory for liberal, Anglo-Saxon Europe, enlarged as much as possible, a giant market, with regulation from Brussels kept to a strict minimum."

Officials in Brussels believe that the stand-off bodes ill for the EU leaders' summit on 16 June. Mr Barroso has said that getting a deal on the financing package will be the first test of whether Europe can escape its crisis. "The mood is gloomy," said one senior EU source yesterday.

An Italian minister, Roberto Maroni, has added to the sense of alarm saying Italy should consider returning to the lira.

n France's Socialist Party yesterday sacked Laurent Fabius, a former prime minister, from his position as its second-ranking official after he went against party policy in calling for a "no" vote in the referendum on the constitution.

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