Mr Blair cannot sustain a policy of facing in two directions at the same time on Europe

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The Independent Online

Any hopes that the leaders of the European Union in Brussels would respond to the disillusionment of their voters by presenting a fresh and united front for change were shattered by the unseemly row over who should be the next president of the Commission. Even before the leaders had gathered, Britain threw a spanner in the works by declaring outright opposition to the candidate of France and Germany, the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt. The reason? He had been too vocal a critic of the invasion of Iraq and organised a rival European defence summit.

Any hopes that the leaders of the European Union in Brussels would respond to the disillusionment of their voters by presenting a fresh and united front for change were shattered by the unseemly row over who should be the next president of the Commission. Even before the leaders had gathered, Britain threw a spanner in the works by declaring outright opposition to the candidate of France and Germany, the Belgian Prime Minister, Guy Verhofstadt. The reason? He had been too vocal a critic of the invasion of Iraq and organised a rival European defence summit.

The shadow of Iraq still hangs over Europe, and, in particular, Britain's relations with France and Germany. So, too, does Tony Blair's sudden decision to commit himself to a referendum on the constitution now being discussed at the summit in Brussels. This has forced Britain, isolated by its strong pro-American stance over the war, to re-emphasise its divisions by appearing as bellicose, and as nationalistic, as possible over the negotiations on the constitution.

We have little about which to be bellicose. The draft agreement published by the convenor of the summit, the Irish Republic, has conceded most of the British positions over its "red line" issues of tax and law. Mr Blair's friend Bertie Ahern has leant over backwards to accommodate London's position on the key points. Even over the question of the appointment of the president, there is a strong hint of pre-arranged posturing between London and Dublin. From the wreckage of the first rejected candidatures will come an acceptable late entrant, perhaps Jean-Claude Juncker of Luxembourg, or even Mr Ahern himself.

The trouble is that this kind of messy horse-trading and backroom dealing is the very thing that most puts off the already disenchanted European voters. If the electorate feels disconnected with the decision-making process in Brussels, it is largely because their political leaders use it for the very worst kind of introverted deal-making.

The new constitution does not address these concerns. Far from it. Its central concern is making the enlarged community more workable by increasing the amount of majority voting, decreasing the number of commissioners for each country, and raising the status of the Council of Ministers. Themes of greater democracy and public participation are left as vague phrases, and all of the compromises being worked in to accommodate Britain's red lines, Poland's Catholicism, and the concern of the smaller states about representation on the Commission, take it further away from anything that can inspire, or even reassure, the public.

Most of the leaders assembled in Brussels would probably agree with this analysis. The new constitution, once seen as the means of reconnecting the Union with the populace, is now regarded as an embarrassment that must be got over before the institution can move ahead. To abandon it now would appear a defeat with potentially disastrous consequences - all the more so because of last week's negative voting. The dilemma for many is that, like it or not, they will still have to present the constitution in at least half-a-dozen referendums across the continent. Some might expect, or even hope, these referendums will fail, but this will not absolve them from the duty of campaigning for a yes vote.

It is a dilemma made all the worse for the British Prime Minister since he has, quite unnecessarily, agreed to such a referendum in Britain. Caught between the rising tide of Euroscepticism behind the United Kingdom Independence Party on the one side, and the demands of his European colleagues, and his own rhetoric, to seek to return to the centre of European politics on the other, Mr Blair is trying desperately to face two directions at once - breathing nationalistic fervour to the popular press at home, and charm and co-operation over the dinner table in Brussels. It is a stance he cannot sustain once the constitution is signed and the preparations for a referendum begin.

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