Setback for Blair as Ahern dismisses EU 'deal' on veto

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The Independent Online

Tony Blair faces a fresh battle to protect the national veto on tax, social security and foreign policy after the Irish presidency of the EU said that concessions claimed by the UK at a summit last month count for nothing.

Bertie Ahern, the Irish Prime Minister, has made clear his determination to kickstart the negotiations on an EU constitution which stalled at an acrimonious summit in Brussels last month. Mr Ahern has contacted the German Chancellor and the French President, scheduled a meeting with the Polish Prime Minister and plans to meet the Spanish Prime Minister soon. Speaking in Dublin, he contradicted claims that Mr Blair had already secured agreement to protect his "red lines".

Mr Blair told the House of Commons after the summit that consensus was close on 82 issues, including changes to the draft constitution that were "very important" for the UK to ensure that decisions on tax, the British budget rebate, social security and criminal law could be vetoed by any nation.

But Mr Ahern said that speculation about agreement on countries' red lines was irrelevant because discussions in Brussels were not finished. He said the texts from which the presidency of the EU is working are those produced by a convention chaired by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former French President, and a later document by the last EU presidency for a meeting of EU foreign ministers in Naples in November. The documents propose an extension of majority voting into several areas, including some foreign policy decisions, efforts to fight cross-border tax fraud, limited social security rules and areas of criminal procedural law.

Mr Ahern said: "We have to take stock and move forward as fast as possible. We have the convention text [by M. Giscard] and the Naples document. We do not have any more." Asked specifically about Mr Blair's "red lines", he replied that there was no agreement on concessions apparently offered to the UK by the formerpresidency of the EU.

Downing Street said last night that Mr Blair had never said the concessions were set in stone, but insisted that progress was made during the summit. A spokesman said: "We said at the time that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. But we believe the argument is moving in our direction in the areas of concern."

Ireland has shared Britain's desire to keep the veto on tax and social security. Charlie McCreevy, Ireland's Finance Minister, confirmed that his country remained committed to opposing majority voting on tax issues.

Less welcome in Downing Street will be the realisation that Dublin is determined to get an agreement on the constitution. The Brussels summit collapsed because of a dispute over voting arrangements, which pitted France and Germany against Spain and Poland.

Since then, British officials have played down the prospects of a breakthrough in the near future. With Mr Blair under pressure to offer a referendum on any constitution that is agreed, he is in no rush to resurrect the talks ahead of the European Parliament elections in June.

But Mr Ahern argued that the longer the outstanding problems remain unresolved, the more difficult it would become to solve them.