Italy's bid to end EU foreign policy veto enrages Britain

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The Independent Online

A plan to end the national veto on European foreign policy was tabled yesterday, raising the stakes before crucial weekend talks on a new European Union constitution.

The proposal, which Britain rejected as "unacceptable", was put forward by the Italian presidency of the EU, which is trying to clinch a deal on the draft constitution next month.

Under the plan, majority voting would apply to foreign policy measures proposed by an EU foreign minister, a post that would be formed under the new constitution.

Diplomats described the inclusion of the idea as a negotiating ploy, arguing that it had been inserted in the knowledge that Britain and other Eurosceptic nations would reject it. Deleting it at a later point could then be presented as a concession to them, it was suggested. But the idea is likely to win the backing of supporters of European integration, including Germany and the Benelux countries.

EU foreign ministers go to Naples this weekend for the penultimate set of talks before their heads of government are due to finalise the draft constitution at a summit starting in Brussels on 12 December.

Most of the constitution was agreed by a convention chaired by the former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, but national governments have the final say. Any of the 15 member states or the 10 countries due to join the EU in May can veto an agreement, and a host of objections has been raised.

Yesterday's paper, designed as a basis for the weekend discussions, ducked many of the central questions of the negotiations, which will be left for heads of government to consider in Brussels.

These include proposals, opposed by Spain and Poland, to change the voting system from the one agreed in Nice three years ago. Catholic nations want a reference to Christianity in the constitution's pre-amble and smaller states are resisting moves to slim the European Commission, removing countries' automatic right to send a European commissioner to Brussels.

One senior diplomat argued: "You cannot imagine people making their final consensus before the last hour, maybe the last minute." Yesterday's document relieved some of the fears in Whitehall that all the work would be left to the last minute and nations presented with a fait accompli, a tactic British officials see as "high risk".

But in the short term, the document fails to resolve any of Britain's main objections or "red lines" in the text, despite several moves in its direction. A proposed EU mutual defence guarantee, to which the UK objects, would be strengthened by being made a general obligation rather than something into which nations could opt. But there is also a pledge that it would "not prejudice existing commitments to Nato". On majority voting, Britain wants to keep the veto on all tax and social security policy and on the harmonisation of judicial criminal law. It also wants a guaranteed veto on energy policy to ward off fears that the UK could lose control of North Sea oil.

None of these pledges are completely satisfied by the text. Most diplomats now expect that Tony Blair will have to hold out for concessions on majority voting in person at the Brussels summit. But British worries that the post of European foreign minister would fall too much under the influence of the European Commission were assuaged by the text. The Commission itself said it was worried by the document's tendency to stress the inter-governmental dimension of the post.

Other proposals included a plan to allow governments the power to change the composition of the European Central Bank's governing bodies by unanimous decision, without needing to change the treaty.

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