Straw praises progress on deal for EU constitution

Europe's leaders are close to striking a deal on the EU's new constitution, as the catastrophic results in the European elections increased pressure on leaders to bury their differences at a summit this week.

Europe's leaders are close to striking a deal on the EU's new constitution, as the catastrophic results in the European elections increased pressure on leaders to bury their differences at a summit this week.

Although Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, said Britain still had reservations about some parts of the draft text of the constitution, he praised "progress" in talks yesterday, and told fellow ministers that he may be able to accept a compromise on decision-making in social security.

That means that the UK is close to agreement on most of its "red lines" - the concessions it says it needs to strike a deal on the constitution.

Meanwhile the Irish presidency of the EU is confident of striking a deal on the vital issue of voting weights, which provoked the breakdown of the talks in December. European politicians have been shocked by the Euro election results, where an increased number of Eurosceptics were returned on a record low turnout. While the Eurosceptic vote has reduced the room for manoeuvre of countries such as the UK and Poland, it has also increased the EU's desperation to avoid a summit debacle on Thursday and Friday this week.

At the meeting the EU leaders will have to try to choose a new president of the European Commission, and Luxembourg's premier, Jean-Claude Juncker, is emerging as the favourite - although so far he has ruled himself out. Germany is said to be cooling on the previous front-runner, Guy Verhofstadt, who suffered a mauling in elections in Belgium. Ireland's premier, Bertie Ahern, or Austria's European commissioner, Franz Fischler, could be late contenders.

On the constitution, Brian Cowan, Foreign Minister of Ireland, which holds the EU presidency, said that he was "heartened by the content of discussions" yesterday, adding that a deal is now "eminently do-able".

A dispute over the powers given to the European Commission to police the eurozone's rulebook was not resolved yesterday and will go to the summit.

Mr Straw said that he may be satisfied with safeguards accompanying a plan to allow majority voting in one limited area of social security law. However the Foreign Secretary said that he would need reassurance that the so-called "emergency break" - under which national governments could stop a measure in extremis - would be effective.

Britain is also edging towards accepting a compromise which appears to ensure that decisions on the British budget rebate remain subject to the national veto.

Mr Straw said: "One clear message is that voters across Europe, including in the United Kingdom, want a European Union that works better in their interests. That's the purpose of the draft constitutional treaty."

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