Merkel seeks to revive European constitution

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The Independent Online

Germany and Britain are on a collision course over the fate of the European constitution as London has made it clear that it opposes any new treaty that would trigger referendums across the Continent.

Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, who has taken over the presidency of the EU, used a speech yesterday in Strasbourg to warn that failure to revive the constitutional treaty would be a "historic mistake" that would leave the EU divided and mired in bureaucracy.

Britain made it plain yesterday that it wants as few changes to the current system as possible, to avoid the need for a popular vote, and called into question the need for any new treaty at all.

Ségolène Royal, the Socialist contender for the French presidency, said a new text should be the subject of another vote in France, which rejected the first one. Since it was rejected by French and Dutch voters in 2005 the constitution has been on ice. All 27 EU nations must ratify the document for it to come into force.

Berlin has set itself the task of reaching agreement on how to proceed with the constitution and to spell out as much detail as possible on the way forward at a summit in June. Ms Merkel said it was vital to resolve the impasse by ratifying a new text before European Parliament elections in mid-2009. Directing her words at Eurosceptics, Ms Merkel argued that future enlargement of the EU cannot take place without a constitutional treaty. She said: "I know it is a very difficult door I am knocking on, but please don't make this historic mistake. Don't prevent Europe from taking a step in that direction which basically you also want."

The German Chancellor added: "A lumbering bureaucratic, divided Europe will not solve the challenges it faces, be they in foreign and security policy, climate and energy, European research, cutting red tape or in dealing with enlargement and with our neighbours."

Germany is one of 18 nations that has ratified the constitution and wants any new treaty to be modelled as closely as possible on the old text. Britain fears it would be under overwhelming pressure to put such a " mini-treaty" to the people.

A senior British source argued that the UK "will not want to hold a referendum in the next couple of years", adding: "There is no sense in the EU ending up with something that requires several more referendums around Europe because the lesson of [the] Maastricht and Nice [treaties] and now the constitutional treaty is that you tend to lose one or two." He questioned the need for any new treaty at all, arguing that "arguments for institutional reform are there but they are overstated. Europe isn't broken."

If the constitution returns, Gordon Brown, who is expected to become prime minister in the summer, is expected to argue that Labour does not need a referendum because one was not held on Maastricht and Nice. However, British ministers will come under strong pressure to put the treaty to a public vote ­ not least from the Tory opposition, which opposes the constitution.

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