Straw signs surprise deal with Poles on EU veto

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The Independent Online

Britain surprised its European Union partners yesterday when it struck an alliance with Poland in an apparent effort to stop France and Germany getting their way with the new EU constitution.

The move, announced by Jack Straw, the Foreign Secretary, in an unprecedented briefing to journalists from Poland alone, was made a week after plans were floated for a closer union between Paris and Berlin in foreign affairs, defence and economic matters.

The formation of an informal London-Warsaw axis was disclosed as negotiations reached a climax over the new constitution for the EU, which is due to be finalised next month. Although Poland does not join the EU formally until May, it has veto rights over the constitution which must be approved by the governments of all 15 member states and the 10 nations that join next year.

Under the deal, Britain will back Polish demands for concessions on moves to change the number of votes it will get in EU decision-making. This is seen as the main roadblock in the negotiations on the constitution. It is a subject in which Britain had played no substantial role until yesterday, although Germany and France oppose the Polish position.

In exchange, Poland said it would support British efforts to change a draft text of the constitution on defence, and in its attempt to stop moves to end the national veto in areas of limited taxation policy.

The deal was sealed at a dinner in Brussels on Monday night between Mr Straw and Wlodzimierz Cimoszewicz, his Polish counterpart.

Some diplomats think the deal could pose a big threat to prospects of a deal on the constitution. With support from each other, Poland or Britain would be more likely to block a deal, or haggle hard as was the case when the EU last negotiated a treaty, in Nice in 2000.

Ironically, the arrangements in that accordare at the heart of the current dispute. At the time Poland won the same voting rights as Spain, giving it almost the same weight as the EU's biggest powers, even though the population of France, Italy and Britain is each about 20 million greater than that of Poland.

Until yesterday Britain had expressed no great preference between the Nice arrangements and new plans, contained in the draft constitution, for votes taken by a qualified majority. These would require the support of 50 per cent of countries and 60 per cent of the EU population.

* Healthcare workers protested in Warsaw yesterday against government reforms prompted by forthcoming membership of the EU. They want more pay and are angry at plans to close indebted hospitals. Leszek Miller, the Prime Minister,is trying to reduce the budget deficit. The workers said funds were being eaten up by a centralised management system.