Where is the enthusiasm for the basic principle of a constitution for Europe?

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The Independent Online

The European Union is an institution of swiftly changing moods. No sooner, it seems, has it brought out the fireworks and massed bands to celebrate its expansion than its 25 foreign ministers are back at the negotiating table, failing - again - to agree on the draft of a European constitution.

The European Union is an institution of swiftly changing moods. No sooner, it seems, has it brought out the fireworks and massed bands to celebrate its expansion than its 25 foreign ministers are back at the negotiating table, failing - again - to agree on the draft of a European constitution.

In Brussels this week it was not just the small print on which they could not agree, but much of the large print as well. It appeared that we were back where we had all started before the disagreements that scuppered the draft constitution last December. Indeed, the particular dispute that was blamed for preventing agreement then - the number of votes allocated to Poland and Spain - is now almost the least of the problems, following a change of government in each country. Many of the old problems are back on the agenda and, as so often, many of them have been placed there by Britain.

It is true, of course, that every EU agreement is the result of hard bargaining, and that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. Everyone indulges in positioning and brinkmanship in the hope of a better deal. No ministers want to yield before they must, and experience suggests that if there is to be agreement, it will not happen before the heads of state and government have burnt much midnight oil at their summit.

Yet none of these facts of EU life should be allowed to obscure the disappointing reality that after months in which Britain appeared to be making efforts to swim in the European mainstream, we are looking once again like the odd one out. The German Foreign Minister did not bother to conceal his annoyance, accusing the British of "salami-slicing" the issues, taking them one by one, to please themselves.

What the French, Germans and others ignored, however, is that so far as British ministers were concerned the "red lines" they had drawn around their pet concerns were never erased. Back in December it suited everyone to blame the intransigence of Spain and Poland for the breakdown of talks. But it had suited Britain more than most, and the tears shed in London were mostly of the crocodile variety. Too bad, ministers said, but it was not our fault. It was almost their ideal outcome: there would be no European constitution, but it was not Britain that would be blamed.

In a familiar echo of other foreign policy forecasts by this government, this was a bad misjudgment. The spring brought not only European Union enlargement, but the re-tabling of the draft constitution. It also brought, out of the blue and entirely for reasons of domestic political expedience, Tony Blair's U-turn on holding a referendum to ratify it. Not only did this embarrass the French and German governments, which had previously also ruled out a referendum, it also showed Britain, yet again, wanting to have Europe both ways. While insisting on a constitution that would not cross our red lines - on tax and benefits, foreign and security policy, judicial issues and the rebate - our government also reserved the right to let the voters reject it.

The Irish Prime Minister, who fears losing face if there is no approval for the constitution before Ireland's presidency ends next month, called for patience and determination. So far as the British are concerned, we would hope for rather more than this. We could start with more ministerial enthusiasm for the principle of a constitution that would enshrine the European idea; a more forceful expression of the much-misunderstood principle of subsidiarity, to reassure people that local issues were not being taken out of their hands, and much clearer lines of democratic accountability both to national parliaments and to voters.

Jack Straw said yesterday that he was "proud to be batting for Britain". We are sure that he will continue to defend his wicket with gusto. But the game of cricket, alas, is less appreciated on the other side of the Channel.

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